monograph - The Kresge Foundation



monograph - The Kresge Foundation
he Kresge Eminent Artist Award honors an exceptional
artist in the visual, performing or literary arts for
lifelong professional achievements and contributions
to Metropolitan Detroit’s cultural community.
Bill Harris is the 2011 Kresge Eminent Artist.
This monograph commemorates his life and work.
3 Foreword
By Rip Rapson
President and CEO
The Kresge Foundation
Artist’s Statement
5 What It Means To Be A
Detroit Artist
The Harris Standards:
7 Recognizing the Beat
Selected Poetry
8 9 10 11 12 Coltrane, Half Note,
New York, 1960
Reclining Nude
Portrait of Louis Armstrong
I Found a New Baby circa 1924
My Heart Belongs to Daddy circa 1929
13 Pennies from Heaven:
Wham Bam
Selected Play Excerpts
Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil
Coming to Coda: Remarks on a
Work in Progress
Selected Fiction
From Just Like in the Movies:
42 DeWitt Meets Picasso
45 The Custodian of the Dream Book
Selected Nonfiction
48 Black Detroit, 1970
Other Voices: Tributes
and Reflections
56 An Enduring Devotion to His Craft
By Gloria House
57 To The Ring Master: Blue Moses
By Thomas Park
59 Our Congratulations
From Michelle Perron
Director, Kresge Arts in Detroit
60 Life In a Masterful Key
By Sue Levytsky
Bill Harris at February 2011 rehearsals for
the New York City premiere of “Cool Blues”
at the New Federal Theatre. Mural by Sheila
Goloborotko/Castillo Theatre, a program of
the All Stars Project in New York City.
67 Bill Harris: The Big Sound
of Life Itself
By George Tysh
70 Biography
72 Selected Bibliography
74 Selected Productions
78A Note from Richard L. Rogers President, College for Creative Studies
Kresge Arts in Detroit Advisory Council
79 The Kresge Eminent Artist Award
Kresge Eminent Artist Award Winners
About The Kresge Foundation
The Kresge Foundation Board of Trustees
80 Acknowledgments
he responsibility of a writer is to excavate the
experience of the people who produced him.
— James Baldwin
The Kresge Foundation celebrates poet and playwright, Bill Harris — a
lifelong Detroiter — for his rich and varied contributions to literature and
his unwavering commitment to developing local writers of all ages.
Bill exemplifies the writer as creator and craftsman. He melds the beat of his
beloved jazz with the life and breath of his characters, giving voice to those
he knows best. In his writing and storytelling he draws on actual life events,
cultural history, and his imagination to explore questions that are universal
and timeless. In these pages, you will glimpse his life story, experience his art,
and come to understand why “allowing students to believe they can be writers,”
as he says, is immensely important to him.
From Detroit to New York City and points beyond and in between, Bill
Harris has won literary acclaim. And all the while, he calls himself a Detroit
artist. It is an honor and a pleasure to recognize him as the 2011 Kresge
Eminent Artist.
Rip Rapson
President and CEO
The Kresge Foundation
our home is like an ancestor, a relative. You love
it because it shaped you, and no matter what it or you become, you remember it through young eyes — when it was its sharpest, its hippest, its happiest— and/or
if its present image is flaking, charred or down at the heels
due to internal or external neglect, or the places you loved
are no longer physically there, they remain, nevertheless,
in your memory and heart, like that wedding or graduationday photo. And you love it anyway. Detroit is my home.
From “Coda and Riffs” by Bill Harris
What It Means To Be
A Detroit Artist
Bill Harris
l ive on the main thoroughfare in Detroit. I’m used to the hubbub
of traffic and the stir of people, subcultures bumping, bouncing
off, blending one into another, into another — buoyed both in the
moment and with a long-view awareness of history by the deep
belief, based in the moment, that it will all be better.
Detroit is intense. It is thumps and thuds. Cracks, sprawl, splatters, rust, stress, sighs,
full of surprise, and pride. It has a social, industrial, political, and racial history of
positives, and not-sos. Labor has always been its reason for being. Migrants from
the four corners, bringing their regional influences, and seeking a living wage, were
willing to weather a lockout, or a blow to the back of the head from an antiunion goon,
for a chance at a better life. They rode on and rocked daily to the rhythms of motordriven machines making the gears and guts for other machines that moved the world.
This essay has
been adapted from
“Stone Songs, Or
Disagreeing with
Dolphy: Two Weeks
In Another Town.”
Monograph Series
#25 2010 Haystack
Mountain School
of Crafts, Deer
Isle, Maine.
They found the strength in tradition and discipline. Reveled in hard knocks and
snowflakes, bouquets of bar-b-que smoke, a laugh in a cry, cry in a laugh, and hope.
All of this, we decided, must be considered when thinking of the whys and wherefores
of what constitutes Detroit art.
That history, with its synthesis of urban and rural rhythms of the blues, swing,
bebop, R & B, Motown, rap, and techno, motivated Detroit through the twentieth
into the twenty-first century, and its present period of redefinition. To its immense
credit, that potage of tempi produced a contemporary creative populous that,
taking daily appraisals of the life-pulse around them, eschews frivolity, and focuses
on the depiction of the available means of survival. It is an aesthetic of working
within forms that made Detroit an industrial giant, and the World War II “Arsenal
of Democracy.”
Out of that reality a way of art has been honed on the grindstone of the in-their-face
reality around them. That edge finds its way into the poetry, prose, painting, and
modeling of the other genres, and is unquestionably in the DNA of all the city’s art forms.
Detroit artists are possessed by, and take possession of, that reality, leading, I think,
to an honesty that gives life to art that knows the past and is always in anticipation
of the next, the new, and always with a hope that is as vital as one’s next breath,
or heartbeat.
Left, inset: Young Bill in 1944 near his Detroit
home on Richmond Street, now part of I-75.
Background: Campus Martius, downtown
Detroit, 1960s.
Recognizing the Beat
t some point, you just have to do what you have to do with the writing.
You have to be aware of the pacing of a piece.
One of the primary things I always want to do is get
music in it, should it be a sonata, should it be an etude,
how much latitude do I have or am I to allow myself?
When does it become a play or a novel? What makes
those decisions?
It has to do with the nature of the material. Is it
an inside story or an outside story? Is it a story of the
mind or of the moment? Stage has to be more of a
moment, two people in a room talking. With a novel
or piece of prose, it can be a person thinking, it can
be about the process of the realization of an internal
moment as opposed to a moment that people can look
at and see happen, which is what happens on stage.
They share that realization, that revelation at the same
time that the characters before them do.
With a poem, it’s an even more specific moment …
But it is a constant question, in terms of what does
this need to be in order for it to be what it needs to be.
Bill Harris, 2011
Reclining Nude
She lies, naked, twisted
as the bedclothes.
her rambling, easy riding papa
done flagged that sundown train.
It’s repeated, it’s repeated
just like a blues refrain.
Alone to do her rocking
in the cold back
rocking chair.
Left her
and his guitar,
took and rode on away from there.
Coltrane, Half Note, New York, 1960
Man. Musician. Not a saint or martyr.
His life’s late Call: Repent. Revere. Reveal
to those who’d hear. Roil the mainstream’s water.
Probe what the unfathomed might conceal
unrelentingly, with a convert’s zeal.
She lies empty
as a cup full of moonlight,
her coal-black, jelly rolling papa
done flagged that Northbound train.
It’s repeated, it’s repeated
just like a blues refrain.
Trane purged, purified himself, then began
with a screamsound, as pure as thunderpeal
bursting unbound, antediluvian,
to bring light to the murk of Stygian
gloom; express wonder at the sensed, the seen;
to give beauty — like fire — Promethean;
to be in awe; be sanctified — serene.
Sought light midst dark. Bore witness with paean
psalms glorifying grey-truths protean.
Portrait of Louis Armstrong
I Found a New Baby
circa 1924
Okeh recording studio,
Chicago, 28 June, 1928.
Fairskinned, even in
her front room’s evening
dim, the boy hangs back.
King Oliver’s Little Louie,
Dippermouth, Satchmo,
Charles Junior sits on
the settee, eyes his
parents and the boy.
could only have bubbled up
out of that Delta gumbo
of Vieux Carré,
Tenderloin, and Garden District conflicts:
Bathed in her gaze, Charles
Senior’s slanty smile
seems to take a week.
complexion, place, creed, and politics;
“I’m got to go off.”
seasoned with Back o’ Town’s pastiche
of deprivation and parades
and ragtime pimps with gold teeth,
tippin’ ‘round razor toting whores
with treasonous dreams.
Then, sheepish as he’s
shown adds: “I’m giving
up the life — going
back to cooking on
my old Pullman line.
Savoring the gage’s last sweet drag,
Louie rasps, “Call to order, gates,
we here to make some music,
so let’s do that thing.
How ‘bout West End Blues,
a-one ….”
You know his mama
ain’t much count — Well, we
talked on it, agreed
he’ll get the better
raising ’neath your hand.”
and his flashing cadenza
cascades from the bell
like a thundering from the Lord,
onto the old river’s deep waters,
The fair boy chews at
his lip, brushes at
his straight hair, clutches
at his bundled things.
overswelling its banks and levees,
His head motion to
the boy’s like a shove.
Grins at each of them.
“Send something first chance . . .”
then eases his hat
on, rakish, and leaves
his drunkard’s breath and
the fair boy behind.
“Come here, sugar,” she
says, “come stand here in
the light and tell me
what’s your name.” “Ikey.”
“That’s what they call you,
but your real name’s John.”
“Yes’m.” “I know,” she
says, searching his face
for Charles Senior and
his wild wop-woman;
can only find the
least of each of them.
and henceforth and forever
rerouting the mighty mainstream’s course.
Pages 8-10 are
selections from
“The Ringmaster’s
Published by Past
Tents Press
Copyright ©1997
Bill Harris
“She come to mope or
nose around,” says Charles
Senior, “just remind
her I done said, ‘Naw.’”
“Charles Junior, meet your
brother,” then hugs the
fair boy to her, just
like he is her own.
Pennies from Heaven:
My Heart Belongs to Daddy
circa 1929
“Take me,” Charlie says,
his tone assuming
his bidding will be done.
relaxed, among themselves;
greeting passing women
or officers of the law. A look
he loves.
A lush shadow-shape
answers Ikey’s knock,
calls back in the house,
“Baby! your boy
back, again.”
Ikey’s “No”
is precise
as the tap
of a tuning fork.
“He’s my daddy,” Ikey adds. “See ’im
when I want to. Anybody don’t like it,
just too black-ass bad.”
Ikey turns to me, rooted
in the unkept yard, winks.
“You promised . . .” Nearer now
to the pitch Ikey,
attentive as a tuner
to a concert grand,
is listening for. “No.”
Mannish! Mannish,
Charlie thinks, the awe,
the affection blazing in his eyes,
as Kaycee’s setting sun.
“Yes you did, . . .” a quaver.
“The last time you went . . .”
Ikey smiles,
he has won . . .
‘Better,’ Ikey, thinks.
The high-tone nearly gone,
but still not meek enough.
Still too
Mama’s Boy.
their mother had confided
about her second son’s
latest stage. ‘Next
he’ll be shooting pool.’
tell her
you go see him
all the time,” but
without heat or a tinge
of the tone.
“I don’t care.” Ikey’s face
a shield of nonchalance. A look
Charlie has seen on older men (their
father even, when he wasn’t
‘in his sin’); men
“He’s my daddy, too,”
Charles says, playing
the trump card
he didn’t know was in his hand.
Says it instinctively,
charged (at that
moment) with utter but guileless conviction; composed
of intriguing desire
and naked need. A tone
he will hone, wield
on pushers, club owners, sidemen,
women, the authorities, and fans.
Ikey looks away. Spits. “Okay
next time . . . You don’t
get on my nerves before . . .”
Little Charlie waits,
with a look of imitative
indifference, says nothing more.
Our daddy, holding the screendoor open,
leans easy on the offplumb frame, red braces heisting
his pinstriped, yellow slacks.
They speak, low, familiar, like man
to man; him watching me
with hand-shaded eyes. He signals.
“Hey,” he says, and rubs
my head with his woman-soft hand.
“Taking care your mama good?”
“Yes, sir — I guess.”
He nods a minute, looks away,
then: “Want a dime?” Hollers
back into the house,
“Eula! Bring me a dime here.
Go on in there, boy,
she’ll give you one.”
Inside as untended
as the yard. Blue raw
riffs drift from another room.
The woman, housecoat open, titties
lulling in her dusk-pink slip,
enters from where the victrola plays,
enters, humming, through the glassbead curtain — baubled strands rolling
and sliding about her mulatto body
like drops of jeweled sweat.
“So. You his other boy, huh?
And a Charles, too, named for him.”
She laughs inside herself. “Hope
for your sake
that’s all you got of his.”
Then, without consideration or
shame, reaches down, in between her
ample, ample, yellow, yellowness,
rummages, then with her free hand
cups and hefts one,
a fresh-ripe fleshy fruit,
hefts, as if testing its
nubile weight.
I could no more not look
than Mrs. Lot.)
Rummages, till, at last,
she fishes out a tatty
purse of coins.
“Close that damn screen,” she calls,
making me remember they, too,
are in the world, “or this place’ll
be full of flies.” Says it
soft and easy, soft
and easy as lullabies.
It slams behind them as they
move, talking, out into the yard.
“He say a dime?”
Eyes groping; them nipples
big and poking,
I nod, dumb as Adam’s ox.
Cool coin in my feverish palm.
“Thank you — ma’am.”
“Manners, huh? Here,
have another. Hell, they’s
mine much as his. More,
for that matter.
But still, that second one’s
our secret, … hear?”
Swear on the spot
not to never spend it. Never.
Not no time in my life.
“Don’t tell your mama
where you got it,”
Papa warns me after, “or
where you been.”
And, to Ikey, says,
“See you soon ….”
Pages 11-13 are
selections from
“Yardbird Suite
Side One: 19201940 A Biopoem
Accounts of Events
Real and Imagined
in the Life of
Charles ‘Yardbird’
Parker Jazz
19 August 1920-12
March 1955”
Published by
Michigan State
University Press,
East Lansing, Mich.
Copyright © 1997
by William Harris
This collection,
winner of the 1997
Naomi Long
Madgett Poetry
Award, is the
author’s first
published book
of poetry.
Selected Play
Harris’ “Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil”
in an April 21, 1993 production at The
Black Rep/The St. Louis Black Repertory
Company, St. Louis.
Riffs was first presented by
Ron Himes at The Black Rep/
The St. Louis Black Repertory
Company, St. Louis, Missouri,
on March 31, 1995. The men
in “Riffs” are friends and
nurturers who love and
respect themselves, their
experiences and each other.
“Riffs” uses rich bantering
language like a symphony
of sorts, bringing forth a
rhythmic, riotous slice of life.
T. MIMS: Retired departmentstore doorman.
GROOVE: Retired rhythm &
blues & jazz radio disc jockey.
TUPELO: Retired barber.
Former blues singer.
These are not frumpy old
men. Each is concerned with
his appearance. Even if they
are out of style, they do it
with style. Each has a hat or
series of them.
PLACE: Detroit’s North End;
metropolitan Detroit suburb.
TIME: Whenever.
ACT ONE: Spoon’s Lounge,
a bar. Tables or booth with
seating for at least four.
ACT TWO: A fast food
national franchise type
restaurant. Tables or with
seating for at least four.
Junior’s large suburban
backyard. Adirondack
chairs & tables.
There is no need for the set
to be realistic. Evocative &
minimal; open space simple;
push it on, pull it off.
At all times the dialogue
should be presented as
musically as possible. A
continuous mix of the rhythms
of bop, blues and rhythm and
blues. It should approximate
a jazz fugue, or quartet for
four voices doing themes
and variations, with rhythmic
repeats, i.e., riffs; swinging
whenever possible.
Pre-show music should include
“Without a Song,” by James
Cleveland & “Precious Lord,”
by Hank Crawford, “Straighten
Up and Fly Right,” Nat Cole;
“Caldonia,” Louis Jordan.
I still don’t remember Bermuda Mohawk.
He was the hard-luck-est, low down-est son of a gun
ever breathed air in the city of Detroit.
If luck was sugar, Bermuda couldn’t’ve sweetened a
spoonful of tea.
If common sense was soapy water, Bermuda couldn’t’ve
bathed a flea. And drank that Comet’s Tail long as he
could get it.
He was a menace to his-self and the North End.
Except for that one time.
T m
That’s right. Bermuda went for Indian.
Foot, face and ass.
Claimed on his granddaddy’s side he was a West Indian
Indian. Say that’s where the name Bermuda come from.
Claimed his grandmama was full blooded Mohawk.
Tried every way he could think of to keep from being a
plain old Negro.
One while Bermuda had me shaving his head with just a patch down the middle.
Mohawk style.
They getting ready to tell lies on innocent animals now.
That’s what kept him from having good sense, spent so much time trying to keep from
being an ordinary Negro till it ruined his judgment. — Like Tom Tom’s wife.
(To audience.)
Naw —
You remember his biggest mistake of all?
Panhandler named Six-Mile Willie. Had a parrot, Pinochle Polly, and a monkey
that danced.
His biggest mistake, and the first positive thing he ever did.
Cameron Street. Christmas Eve.
What yall talking about?
(“ Yes.”)
But there was another time too. The time with the monkey.
(To audience.)
You see what’s happening, don’t you? You know what they getting ready to do.
When was that?
You lying.
If I’m lying, I’m flying.
Ladies and gentlemen, fasten your seat belts. We are in for a rocky ride.
And wore a top hat all the time.
The top hat.
(To audience.)
You remember about the dancing monkey.
I don’t remember that.
You didn’t hear about that?
Don’t remember.
You’d remember if you had. Panhandler’s monkey.
Six-Mile wore the hat …
Six-Mile was the panhandler?
Six-Mile Willie.
And the monkey danced.
While the parrot whistled.
I don’t remember nothing about this.
Monkey’s name was Master Mumbo Jumbo.
Master Mumbo Jumbo.
They panhandled mostly around Eastern Market.
(To audience.)
He say “Did?” like they didn’t work this out before hand.
Master Mumbo Jumbo done it. You missed it.
Damn! I missed Tiny Tim’s wedding too.
Six-Mile Willie wore that top hat all the time, summer and winter. It was his trademark.
The monkey and the parrot should’ve been trademark enough.
Six-Mile Willie, Pinochle Polly, the whistling parrot, and Master Mumbo Jumbo, the
dancing monkey. And they made pretty good money.
Kept the parrot up under the top hat when they wasn’t working, collected handouts in it
when they were. Anyway, Bermuda was down there one time, picking up some peaches
for Shorty O.
(To audience, mimicking.)
Especially on Saturdays; day folks go down to get fresh vegetables and meat. That
monkey could dance.
I suppose “Master Mumbo Jumbo” did a tap dance?
Did a dance to whatever kind of music Pinochle Polly the parrot would whistle. And
she could scat-whistle just like Ella Fitzgerald doing How High the Moon.
Could he Charleston?
That’s right, ‘cause he worked for Shorty O.
Drove a truck, picking up fruit for Shorty O to make that moonshine.
Sure did.
That’s when Bermuda saw Six-Mile Willie and his dancing monkey.
That make sense.
(To audience.)
Yeah, right.
End of the day Six-Mile Willie, Pinochle Polly and Master Mumbo Jumbo, the
monkey, go down the alley at Orleans to the bank there on Gratiot.
Could Mohammed Ali run his mouth?
Before they put the expressway through so the white people could get out of town
I’d like to see a monkey do the Charleston one time before I die.
(To audience.)
Isn’t that everybody’s dream?
Six-Mile was saving up for another monkey. Had to save; couldn’t get a loan.
Couldn’t he get a co-signer?
Master Mumbo Jumbo was the only somebody Six-Mile Willie knew with any money.
But the fact the monkey was making more money than most Negroes during that time,
didn’t hold no sway with the loan officer.
Saving to get another monkey, huh?
Yeah, a girlfriend and dancing partner for Master Mumbo Jumbo. The little hairy son of
a bitch stayed horny, and was getting hard to live with. Got so Six-Mile was scared to
leave Master Mumbo Jumbo alone with Polly.
(To audience.)
Imagine the off-spring from that union! Get something can hang by its tail, eat bananas,
talk about your mama, and then fly its signifying behind on off ?
This one time Bermuda delivered the peaches to Shorty O. Then he got him a jug of that
Comet’s Tail Wine. Went back down to the market. Sipped away the rest of the day,
watching Six-Mile, and them do their show and collect money. Night fall. Market closes.
Six-Mile and Master Mumbo Jumbo heading for the bank. Polly up under the top hat.
It’s dark, right. Bermuda run up behind them in the alley there, grabbed Master Mumbo
Jumbo, threatened to blow its monkey brains out Six-Mile don’t hand over the money.
Except for that one time.
But this time, before he could get to the other end of the alley, Crackers, with shoe polish on
his face as a disguise, jumped out from behind a trash can and told Bermuda to stick ’em up.
Bermuda jumped bad. Showed his hand-in-his-coat-pretend-like-he-had-a-pistolpistol. Crackers showed Bermuda his real-pistol-in-his-hand-pistol, then run off with
Six-Mile’s money and Bermuda’s wallet and clothes, except for them six buckle goulashes
he wore all the time.
You didn’t say nothing about Bermuda wearing goulashes before.
They was kind of his trademark.
Anyway, Bermuda, naked as a jaybird, went straight to the Police station, to file a
complaint on the Negro mugged him. By that time Six-Mile and his menagerie showed
up to file their complaint about being mugged. Bermuda couldn’t identify his mugger,
except that he was dark skinned, and smelled like Kiwi ….
That shoe polish ….
That’s low down, mug a man’s monkey.
(To audience.)
The lie these two Negroes telling; that’s what’s low down.
Bermuda played like he had a pistol, all it was was his hand in his pocket. But Six-Mile
didn’t know that. He handed over the day’s receipts, and Bermuda run off down the alley.
That was cold.
Naw, that was when Bermuda’s trouble started.
Cops caught him, huh?
Worse than that. But he did end up empty handed and in jail.
Like always. That Negro was a menace to his-self and the North End.
… but Master Mumbo Jumbo ….
… The monkey ….
… give the police a positive i.d. on Ber-muda! They loaned him some prison over-alls
and locked his butt up.
Sound like what they call a precedent setting case.
Bermuda fought it up to the Supreme Court.
Master Mumbo Jumbo hired an NAACP lawyer and won the case.
It was in JET.
Yeah, Bermuda was a menace to his-self and the North End, whether he was drinking
that Comet’s Tail Wine or not.
excerpt f rom
“Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil”
Robert Johnson: Trick the
Devil premiered on Feb. 18,
1993 with The New Federal
Theatre at the Henry Street
Settlement: Abrons Arts
Center in New York City.
“In most people’s mind, Robert
Johnson was more a myth
than a man. The nature of
the myth — that he sold his
soul to the Devil — seemed to
me, to serve a community
other than the one from which
Johnson came. I wanted to, if
not “set the record” straight,
at least present counter
possibilities that shed light on
the darkness at the heart of
the myth-makers intent. I have
always been intrigued and
guided by jazz and blues men.
They get to speak with true
voices of freedom in ways that
not many other African
Americans have access to.”
STOKES: Blind piano player.
A seer.
GEORGIA: Late 30s, early
40s. Her own woman.
20s. Lean. Blues singer.
insecure and braggadocious.
England academic.
LEM: A broken man in his
late 30s, early 40s. Georgia’s
estranged husband.
TIME: Summer 1938. Blues
legend Robert Johnson is
back touring the jook joints
of Mississippi after a historic
recording session in Dallas.
Unbeknownst to him — his last.
ACT ONE: Georgia’s Colored
Jook Joint, Mississippi.
ACT TWO: Same place, a
moment later.
– Bill Harris on writing
“Robert Johnson: Trick the
Devil,” taken from an
interview with Runako Jahi
for eta Creative Arts
Foundation in Chicago.
KIMBROUGH: (Frustrated.)
How could somebody make records like his
and his own people not even know his name?
GEORGIA: Just because you want him don’t mean we
got to know him.
STOKES: You know all the white folks made records?
(KIMBROUGH is silent.)
STOKES: If I could hear him though I could tell you whether he from Alabama, (Demonstrates.) Texas,
(demonstrates.) eastern Arkansas (Demonstrates.) or
Tennessee; whether he’s a rambler or ain’t never left
home. And if he been north? what railroad he took.
And don’t let him be from Mississippi! —
especially the Delta. Can nail it down to plantation
and damn near who his daddy was.
KIMBROUGH: I told you, Robert Johnson is his name.
GEORGIA: (To STOKES) Can’t always go on a name, can you?
STOKES: I knowed a Robert Smith one time. They called him Chicken Lips. White folks called him
Uncle Chicken Lips. Knowed a woman they called
Pot Luck.... But no Robert Johnson.
T m
GEORGIA: I remember a Bo-Peep, a Snooky, a Baby Boy and a woman named Barefoot. Now them some names.
STOKES: ... Mo Jo, Skeeter, Black Pearl ... Zero. Every year at settling time Zero’d get mad because he’d come out in the hole again. Worked a whole ‘nother year and
come out owing the white man. Zero’d get drunk and run everybody out of town,
white folks, dogs, everybody. Him and his family was such good workers though
till the landlord couldn’t afford to kill him, so he let Zero have his little fun.
Happened so regular they turned it into a local holiday. Zero Day they called it.
Let me see, who else?
GEORGIA: A fellow up in Hopkins, Mississippi they first named School Boy. Probably hadn’t even never been near no school, so, of all the things they could have called
him, they still called him School Boy. Anyway, one night he went to dreaming he
was in a fight, got his pistol from under his pillow, shot his self in the foot. They
called him Four Toes after that.
STOKES: Smokey Junior. He lived up by Miller County. Had some trouble about something with the Klan down there. Found him shot three times in the heart.
Sheriff said he committed suicide.
GEORGIA: (Laughs.) Who ever heard of a Negro committing suicide anyway?
STOKES: Sheriff claimed Smokey Junior did.
GEORGIA: Naw, no Robert Johnson. But I knowed somebody one time didn’t have no legs, stuttered when he talked, and kept a rattlesnake named Gertrude for a house
pet. And they call that negro, Hambone Red. Now, this one time he got into it,
probably behind some signifying, with another negro. Over a woman run a whore
house for a Chinaman outside a turpentine camp near Morganfield Station,
STOKES: Right there where the Black Diamond Streamline train cross the Burnett River there.
GEORGIA: That’s right. Now the woman she was double sized. Weighed 500 pounds soaking wet.
STOKES: Must took a barrel of water to dampen her, and had to weigh her on cotton scales.
GEORGIA: I don’t know what they weighed her on, but it come to 500 pounds when they got through.
STOKES: That’s five bails! You ever picked 500 pounds of cotton?
KIMBROUGH: But you’re blind.
STOKES: They didn’t care nothing about that, they just wanted that damned cotton picked. But about Hambone Red ....
GEORGIA: And now the fellow Hambone Red got into it with stood six feet seven inches in his big bare feet. And was broad through the shoulder as a crossbeam in
a Baptist church.
KIMBROUGH: “To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.” What was his name?
GEORGIA: Second Cousin. That was all anybody called him. Second Cousin. Everybody. Whether they was kin to him or no. So Second Cousin stood up there tall as the center pole in a revival tent as he threatened Hambone Red about this woman.
STOKES: Hell, she weighed 500 pounds, was enough of her for both of them.
GEORGIA: Second Cousin wanted all of her to hisself. And threatened Hambone Red about her. Now Hambone Red couldn’t run ....
STOKES: Because, you say, he didn’t have no legs.
GEORGIA: That’s right. And neither could he get his lie out good, because he got excited when Second Cousin threatened him ....
STOKES: And he went to stuttering. (“Right?”)
GEORGIA: That’s right.
STOKES: I don’t blame him, negro that size.
GEORGIA: That’s right. So wasn’t nothing left for Hambone Red to do but defend his self best way he knew how.
KIMBROUGH: “But that defenses, musters, preparations
Should be maintained, assembled, and collected
As were a war inexpectation.” So,
What did Hambone Red do to defend himself?
GEORGIA: Shot Second Cousin.
GEORGIA: Five times.
GEORGIA: Ankle, knee, stomach, chest and head.
STOKES: Chopped him down like a pine tree.
GEORGIA: To keep that big negro from chucking his little ass off that trestle down in front of that Black Diamond Streamline barreling south through there that evening
like convicts busting out of jail.
STOKES: (To KIMBROUGH.) Every evening, 7:30 like clockwork. And even if that Streamline hadn’t killed him, being throwed off that trestle would’ve.
GEORGIA: Whole thing scared Hambone Red so bad that when it was over he didn’t stutter no more.
KIMBROUGH: Cut down as was Titus Andronicus.
“And hither hale that misbelieving Moor,
To be adjudg’d some direful slaughtering death,
As punishment for his most wicked life.”
What happened did Hambone Red go to jail?
GEORGIA: Not yet.
STOKES: Kill a white man, next stop hell. Kill a negro, fare-thee-well.
GEORGIA: Negro steal a nickel, do some time, white man take a million, that’s just fine.
KIMBROUGH: (“Amazing.”) And what was the woman’s name who was the cause?
STOKES: Yeah, names is what got us going on this in the first place. What was the woman’s name they was fighting over?
GEORGIA: Honeydipper.
STOKES: And what about the snake?
GEORGIA: Gertrude? What about it?
STOKES: You tell a story you got to tell it all.
GEORGIA: Well I heard what finally happened was Honeydipper was getting over in the bed with Hambone Red one night, stepped on Gertrude, killing it on the spot. And it scared big Honeydipper so bad she fell over on top of Hambone Red. Killed him too.
STOKES: Umph! Bet it crushed him like a grape.
GEORGIA: So, that’s the story of Hambone Red, Honeydipper and Gertrude.
STOKES: (To KIMBROUGH.) See, so what all that tells you is, a name don’t mean what it might where you come from.
GEORGIA: White man get a name he can keep it forever.
STOKES: We ain’t knowed our real name since we been here.
GEORGIA: Best we can do is you know somebody by the name they go by.
STOKES: He might be “so and so” over here, then be “such and such” over there. See. And neither one might not be what his mama named him. And I might know
some stories on a fellah, but not his story, you see. And even if you know, like I
say, it ain’t etiquette to tell. It’s strictly his business. And see, the way yall keep us
dipping and dodging with this Jim Crow business and all, thing like leaving
forwarding address can take second seat to trying to put food in your belly.
KIMBROUGH: But I paid them: tobacco, whiskey, money, to deliver him to me, or tell me where he could be found. And they’d promise me —
(In black dialect.) “Robert, he be at such and such a place,
such and such a time.” Or, “He was just here
yesterday, tomorrow he be at so
and so,” and I go, and they would tell me,
“He just left yesterday,” or, “We never
heard of nobody go by that name, boss.”
STOKES: Like the Indian say, “A heap see, but few know.”
KIMBROUGH: What Indian?
STOKES: The Indian.
KIMBROUGH: I’m afraid I don’t understand the reference.
STOKES: (“That proves my point.”) See.
KIMBROUGH: (With edge.)
This is serious. You think if it wasn’t
I’d be chasing after a colored boy
I know less and less about the more I ask?
STOKES: (not intimidated) I don’t know what you’d do.
KIMBROUGH: Why do all you people take me for a fool?
(Sound of THUNDER. Pause as they react to it.)
STOKES: Well, yall ain’t going worry me about looking for a guitar playing man.
(Sound of THUNDER, followed by RAIN. Pause as they react to it.)
GEORGIA: (To STOKES.) You know where I’ll be. (To audience.) I think it started raining just as I was going upstairs. (Laughs.) I took it as a sign.
(To KIMBROUGH) You need anything, Stokes’ll get it for you. You can pay
him. (She exits.)
ROBERT: So I tell Willie Brown, “I’m going take my guitar and go down to the crossroads, man, see what old Satan got to say.” And old Willie say he would go
but there was this old juicy gal had finally said what he wanted to hear. And since
he could run into old Satan anytime, but this might his only shot at this big
legged brownskin he was going let me go head on by myself. Well, that was all
right ’cause I’d been alone like that most of my life. And so I went on down. Got
there just after midnight just like they say. And I waited. But didn’t nothing
happen. Way off in the distance I heard a dog howl and an old owl cut loose with
a hoot, so I sat down and got out my guitar and went to picking at a little tune.
And still didn’t nothing happen. And so I said to myself, shoot, I look like a fool
sitting out here on the edge of west Hell waiting on somebody, so I got myself on
up from there and was just fixing to go on about my business, when all of a
sudden I heard a laugh. And the Devil showed up. Sitting opposite of me on the
stump of a tree. He wasn’t no bad looking fella as far as that went, least not like I
might’ve thought. Didn’t have no faceless head with two horns swarming around
with flies, big long tail and claws on his feet. He was just an ordinary white man
in a suit and tie — but still he had blood in his eye. He explained the way it was
supposed to go is I hand him my guitar and he play on it then hand it back, and
the deal be done and I be able to play from then on like a rabbit can run. Well I
thought about it and it seemed too easy to me. I hadn’t never got nothing before I
didn’t earn, nor most of what I had; so I wondered what made me think he was
about to start then? And besides, I’m particular, and I don’t let just anybody
handle my guitar. I’m funny like that. So I got sassy and told him my guitar was
all I had and if he wanted to play he had to get his own damned guitar. He told
me,“Give me that goddamn guitar here, nigger!” And I didn’t move. I’m thinking
that’s the way they talk to you here then it ain’t a bit better than where I just left,
and to hell with it! I could’ve stayed home I wanted to be treated like a dog, fool
or a child. And Satan say if I didn’t hand it over he was going do everything but
eat me, and he might do that too. Well, I was new to the place, so I didn’t know if
he could or no. And he told me then, “All right then, let me see what you can do.”
And so I hit the lick I’d learned from worrying Son House and them. And the
Devil fell out laughing. Laughed so hard he almost hurt hisself. Well that hurt my
little feelings, and made me mad at the same damn time. So I kept on — trying to
make up something, trying to remember every music I’d heard, from the Delta
through the swamps of Louisiana, ‘cross the Mississippi and the Gulf on the
Brazos. But that just tickled him all the more. He told me, he says, “Get on ‘way
from here, boy, you ain’t doing nothing but wasting my time.” But he was having
too much fun laughing to move. And I kept on like didn’t nothing matter, not a
man, woman, child or plot of land. But I did quit trying to copy cat off them
others playing. But still the Devil he say, “Boy, you can’t play no music.” Still I was
whipping that guitar more ways than a skinner can whup a mule. But I could feel
myself getting weaker. And I was getting scared. He wasn’t laughing no more.
Everything was changing and I could feel myself sinking down to the deepest
places and the darkest parts — deep in hell as a hawk can fly in a week, to where
60 seconds was a day. Pigs could have puppies. And dead men dealing 5 card stud
laughed at 3 headed babies as they drowned in lakes of sand. I was slipping back
to the beginning of all mankind, but I kept on playing, knowing it was all stood
between me and losing my soul. But I kept on playing — But then little by little,
from somewhere, I don’t know, from me, mostly — I thought. But maybe not.
Look like something told me to walk them four corners from point to point. And
I did. Then kitty corner. Then round and round. And that’s what I done. And
something else come to me and say, “Bob, the best way to get ahead is to go back
where you started.” And I reckon that’s when I took the Devil by surprise. Because then it wasn’t just me no more — You know how folks, the old folks, talk,
when they be setting around last before bed time, taking the ease of the evening
air; we little nappy heads be dozing at their knee. And their words and thoughts
be drifting out, like cook smoke into the moonlight — telling about their old folks
and their old folk’s folk, far back as they could tell. And all what’d happen and the
feelings to the time before the Devil first come to over there where they started.
And following on up through their low down days and nights of sorrow: the
bondage, being bid for on the block, the lash, Jim Crow, the rope, the chain gang
and the Klan. And the longer I played look like the stronger it was coming out that
guitar. And that’s what got the Devil, because he couldn’t call none of it a lie! The
strings was so hot they was smoking and fire was coming from the box. And I
handed it to him, and I say, “Now you can play it if you want to.” But it was so hot
till he couldn’t handle it. And well — that just poured him back in the jug! He
was so jealous all he could do was get out his guitar. And play. And it was the
meanest, most hellish blues I ever heard. And just like I done with Willie Brown
and them, I watched and saw how he done it. And that’s how I got to know the
Devil’s tune! And he knew it. But right then wasn’t nothing he could do. And
then he say, “Get on ‘way from around here, boy, I ain’t got time for you now.” And
he got up and walked with me back to the gates of Hell. He told me, he say, “You
going take some studying. But just as sure as 3 times 9 is 27, some day you bound
to fall.” But I had him then, and him or nobody else couldn’t tell me nothing. Now
that’s just how it happened, and every word is true. (Goes to get drink.)
Theresa had grown up like that …. He didn’t even know to brush his teeth every damn
day. I knew if I didn’t show him something, the simplest thing, that when he got out
he’d be back inside, inside a month.
Inside or dead. So you showed him…
excer pt
f rom
How to get a sound of the horn.
(“That’s all it was.”)
And once you showed him.
And he knew that he didn’t know ….
But showed him gentle enough so he wasn’t ashamed of not knowing ….
Coda: a concluding musical
section at the end of a
composition, introduced to
bring it to a satisfactory close.
“Coda” premiered April 27,
1990 at Detroit’s Attic Theatre.
Directed by veteran producerdirector Woodie King, Jr.,
Coda is among Harris’ most
beloved plays, a moving
tribute to the last days of
Detroit’s legendary jazz scene,
its venerable musicians and
their enduring legacy.
MADDOX (DOX): Late 40s.
Black. Jazz musician.
Late 40s. Black. Bar owner.
ROYST: Late 30s, early
40s. White. Former musician,
now host of children’s
television program. Huck Finn
in Pat Boone’s clothing.
THERESA: Early 20s. Black.
Daughter of Maddox. Jazz
musician. Has hard edged,
hip sense of humor. Never
self-pitying. SETTING: North-End Detroit
neighborhood jazz club.
(Spoon’s Lounge) should
have the feeling of being
lighted primarily by the
sunlight which fights its way
in from outside & the few
neon signs & working lights
behind the bar; not gloomy
but dim. There is possibly a
mural featuring a reclining,
scantily clad female, or
dueling horn players, on the
wall behind the bandstand.
Also publicity photos, some
yellowing and curling, of
musicians who have worked
the club over the years.
A piano on the bandstand.
Small tables with chairs,
seats down atop them.
TIME: Monday, March 14, 1955,
If Theresa had been an orphan, or grew up in the streets I
could dig it. If she’d come from somewhere like this kid I
met in the joint. He didn’t know nothing, Spoon. Nothing!
The Detroit way: like we used to do it: he could learn. If he wanted to. You would teach him.
The Detroit way.
Did he even know that?
What? That he didn’t know nothing? No.
Not even a clue.
Hadn’t been taught nothing. In for armed robbery. I’m
surprised he knew which end of the gun to point. I don’t
mean ignorant, but — unschooled.
Nobody ever took time to teach him.
And didn’t have to be afraid of wanting to know ….
Un huh.
(“He blossomed. Blossomed!”)
You could see him opening up. Like a flower to the sun.
(“Of course.”)
The Detroit way.
Once I got him to admit he wanted to learn the horn.
You could teach him something then ….
Liked-to-worried-me-to-death after that.
Just that he knew he didn’t know.
He was willing to learn.
That’s all you need to know if you want to know.
Wanted to know everything. And I learned teaching him.
She’ll be here. Royst, too. I told him you were coming.
The TV star …. I could not believe it when I heard ….
Channel 7 every Saturday morning. The kids dig him.
Uncle Rooster. And his Rooster Boosters.
God bless America.
Land of opportunity.
(“Of course you did.”)
The-Detroit-way. Know that made you feel good.
That’s the way we learned.
The way we were taught.
(As above. No time has passed.)
(To audience, referring to DOX & THERESA.)
The Detroit way.
Long way to go, long time to spend, for a simple lesson.
You know where the word jazz comes from, don’t you?
From a French word —
(With exaggerated French accent.)
That kid’s age.
And you know why I put music in here in the first place? Because I thought we needed it.
I mean I got this joint almost like a gift — Ain’t every day one of us gets an
opportunity like that. And so, maybe I’ll somehow kind of return the favor. Make a
club of our own. Where we can come and hear our music without a whole lot of bullshit
from people running it to make a buck, but not respecting the music, or us.
You know I said about Dox cutting Bird: One Friday night it was, and it was a classic.
Those be the ones sometimes. — How’d you spend the rest of your time?
Couldn’t’ve made it if I’d been younger.
But I set up a little music department. Not too much hassle. Practiced everyday.
Anybody to blow with?
Couple of cats, but it was mostly tax dodgers and they didn’t have a whole lot of soul.
You really think Theresa’ll be in?
jazzer. Means to talk, y’know, run it down. Yeah.
(Continue to “blow” throughout.)
Bird’s blowing over at the Rouge Lounge, and everybody who can’t get in there is here,
figuring he will fall by after anyway. So, it’s tight in here as 13 people under a parasol.
And right down front, from the opening set; these two chicks. Two of the finest brown
skins I have ever seen in my natural life! Drinking Bloody Marys, and wasn’t having to
pay for a-one, courtesy of every dude in eye shot of them.
And everybody with a horn is in here in the hopes of getting to blow with Bird when,
and if, he shows. But Dox is having none of that; is cutting everybody with nerve
enough to unpack his axe. Now Lily is on a break, down at the end of the bar, nursing a
Coke with just a little ice, and digging Dox teaching school, and these two chicks digging
him. I’m behind the bar trying to help Oscar keep up with the orders.
Okay, so we got Dox, eliminating all competition in anticipation of Bird’s arrival; we
got these two chicks — You know how when a jungle cat stretches, after a nap, and its
muscles like be having a rippling tug-of-war with each other, all slow and sleek and
powerful; and how, like, silk looks sliding across a nipple; the sound of nylons rubbing
together —?— : these chicks, when either one-of-them goes strolling to the Ladies
during a break! And we got a primed Friday night full-house — And about 2:30, in
flies Bird. Excitement runs through the joint like Castor Oil through a cat. Bird
immediately digs what’s happening, draws his axe and mounts the stage. The pressure
cooker is on. The flame is lit.
House rules have always been, new man calls the tune. Bird calls Cherokee, and takes off
like Brer Rabbit through the briar patch! And Dox, Brer Fox, is on him! Like a duck on
a June Bug, and is not about to be out run or out done. The crowd is shouting, “Blow!”
And that’s when these two chicks get to clapping their hands, and one of them starts
hollering, “Go, alto, go!” And Bird is digging this chick and is breathing fire and blowing
bullets and tearing that little horn up! And when he comes to the end of his solo he
quotes, in rapid succession from, You Came To Me Out of Nowhere, I’m In The Mood For
Love, and Now’s The Time. Talking to her.
And right on top of this, almost, Dox comes in with his solo, which he begins by quoting
All The Things You Are, and Things To Come, to this other chick. Then goes into his solo
with his ears laid back. Well the other chicks starts hollering, “Go, tenor, go!” And he
does! Chorus after chorus after chorus. Then at the end of his solo he rips off quotes
from Embraceable You, You Go to My Head, and Lady Be Good, aimed at this chick, dig it.
Lily was on her second Coke, light ice, and is just digging all this. Everybody else is
screaming. It is so hot we’ve almost got to take turns breathing. The walls were sweating.
After Dox’s solo, him and Bird they start trading 16 bars, then 8, then 4, then 16 again,
8, 4, 2. They wore it and everybody in here out. Wasn’t a dry nothing in the house.
People were screaming, whistling, stomping their feet. It’s New Year’s Eve on Benzedrine.
And Bird and Dox are standing there like two fighters, Sugar Ray and LaMotta, after a
15-round war, looking down at Misses Fine and Double Fine.
Lily finishes her Coke, winks at me, and moves to the stand to reclaim the piano. Now
Lily was known, among other things, for her ability to play long, hard and fast, from her
days playing in the churches. She’s the new man, right, so she calls the tune. Everybody
is expecting another jet, like Little Willie Leaps, or one of them other race horses.
But she goes into a ballad. F’ing everybody up! People are thinking, What’s happening,
man? Even grumbling a little bit. They want blood. They want to see one of these cats
hit this wall doing 900. But Lily was cool; like she was sitting in church on Easter
Sunday, only thing missing was a little straw hat. Now you know Detroit piano players.
They play all of the tune from verse to coda. The Detroit way. And Lily is all over the
piano: Art Tatum and Horowitz. But it was an extremely hip crowd and it wasn’t but a
minute before they recognize what she’s playing: If I Should Lose You.
Well Bird, leads off, and he’s in to it. His little alto kind of resting on his Buddha belly,
big sausage fingers — (f ’ing drugs had him bloated up) but that don’t stop him.
Bird’s painting pictures. Watercolors, like down in the art museum: like landscapes.
With like a little bird with a piece of pretty bow ribbon in its mouth; the blue bird of
happiness, gliding through a fluffy-pink-cloud sky.
Now it’s a whole different thing Bird’s painting; people grinning like teenagers at the
prom. It’s orchid corsages on cotton candy dresses. And Bird steps back, as if to say,
“Now out-pretty that.” And then Dox begins. And it ain’t a ballad no more. Lily is
comping under him, and it’s like she talking, whispering to Dox and there is nobody
else in the joint. A woman talking to her man in that Detroit way like they can do. And
it ain’t a ballad or even a love song, it’s grown folks talking. He’s standing there with his
back to the audience, blowing directly at her and she is playing at looking directly at
him! If I Should Lose You. And they whispering back and forth.
You might not believe it, but their message was so strong that couples started like easing
out two by two, hand in hand. And it wasn’t the lateness of the hour that was sending
them out of here. I remember it like it was yesterday. Man, I’d give anything to have
a tape recording of that night. Make enough off it so my grandkids wouldn’t have to
work — which would put them in the same category as their daddies.
The two chicks?
They both left with Bird.
You know — I never heard either Dox or Lily play that tune again. Separately or together.
Now they might have, somewhere else, I’m just saying they never played it in here.
(Light fades on SPOON, up on
they continue their duet as lights
fade on them
and the end of
the play.)
Coming to “Coda”:
Remarks on a Work in Progress
Bill Harris
discussed his
methods and the
development of
a key concept in
“Coda” at the
LINES Writing
In The City
Conference at the
Detroit Institute
of Arts in October
of 1988. A portion
of his remarks
are printed here
as they appeared
in City Arts
Quarterly, Volume
IV, No. 1/2 –
Special Double
Issue, Celebrating
Detroit, 1989.
ne of the few things
that I learned in writing classes —
I took a lot of writing classes as a student — I think
there were two things that I
learned which have held me in
good stead: one, that plays are
rewritten rather than written.
The other thing is to find the sound
of your own voice, which means,
I think, to be true to that which is
playing around in your own head.
The problem in terms of
Vaughn Washington and Judy Milner rehearse for “Coda” premiere at
getting it out of your head and on
Detroit’s Attic Theatre, 1990.
the page and eventually on the stage
is that what sounds good in your head may not work on the page. I mean, it can
sound — you can hear these people talking, and that’s right. But somehow, in the
process, when it goes from your brain down your arm, it loses it sometimes.
But if indeed you are able to struggle with this and make all these revisions,
etcetera, etcetera, and you eventually get it so that it works on the page, then it may
not work when you try and translate it to the stage.
One of the things — and it’s always interesting in terms of rehearsal, the
rehearsal process — you go in and everybody sits around a table and you read
through the script the first time. That’s probably the worst thing in the world for me,
that part of the process, because you have a line that says “I love you,” for instance,
and an actor will inevitably say, “I love you?” I mean, they just take it somewhere
that it obviously doesn’t go.
So you make it through that, and then the first week all the actors love you
because they can come in and they can ask you what this line means, and you try to
explain it to them and you see it hit them in the forehead and drop off. But you go
through that. And then, after the first or second week of rehearsal, somehow this
magical thing happens in relation to actors, and they think it’s now their play. I’ve
lived with this [play] for a year, a year and a half, and I’ve struggled and created and
blah blah blah, but somehow in that very short period it becomes their play, and
they don’t wanna hear anything from the writer any more. Somehow you’re a pariah,
and they just don’t wanna see you because … that’s how actors work.
In any case, the real joy in writing is finding my voice, and the way that’s done
is by finding the various voices of the various characters, and doing that as exactly
as I can. And it really is about the process of trying to put human beings on a stage,
and having them recognized as such. It sounds very simple, but it obviously is not
that simple. And if you don’t believe it, try it.
Anyway, I wanted to write this play about jazz musicians and didn’t really
want to deal with the typical kind of struggle, of musicians struggling with being
musicians. I don’t think that most musicians actually spend all that much time
struggling with that kind of reality — I mean they are musicians, and that’s what
they do, dot dot dot. So I wanted to do musicians — I mean, human beings who are
musicians, okay?
Again, it sounds very simple, possibly even simplistic. And I wanted to do it
about Black males — I’ve been a Black male all my life, and have always enjoyed
that, and I think there are probably a lot worse things that a fellow could be …
despite all the kind of vilification by this weasly cadre of latter-day colonialists and
jingo-genocidal kinds of folks.
So I simply wanted to put some brothers on stage who had an underlying
kind of positiveness to themselves and about themselves and, again, whose main
concern was not really sitting around worrying about “the Man.” I wanted to capture
the energy of the images and rhythms and lines of two — in this particular case —
of two men who are friends. I think that’s a thing that isn’t necessarily seen or
portrayed a lot on stage or in movies or a lot of places: just two Black men who are
in synch with each other in terms of their conversation — and I wanted their
conversation to reflect this kind of simpatico.
I also wanted to do it — since language is really the only thing you have to
work with prior to the things you have to work with on stage — to do it without
actually saying it or actually talking about it. And, since this is a jazz piece, to do it
in a way — and hopefully this reference will mean something to most folks — that,
say, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker did it when they were playing. If you really
listen to them, it’s a kind of conversation, and it’s a very — it’s a conversation that
comes out of the fact that they are in synch with each other.
You have two men who are improvising — I mean, the things that they’re
playing, they have never played before. But it works because they know who they
are, and they know who the other person is. They have a very confidential kind of
assurance of who they are and that this other person’s going to be able to answer
them in this kind of improvisational interplay. Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman in
the early recordings that they made are a good example of that.
So that was one of the things. And then I just wanted to get the whole feeling
of the lying and signifying kind of thing that happens between Black males when
they come together, and just the joy of the brotherhood, and the apin’ and japin’, which
is as natural to, it seems to me, Black males as breathing. Just the kind of interplay
that they have with each other, where nothing really has to be explained. I mean,
with a friend, whoever your friend is, I think a part of that is you don’t really have to
explain stuff to them, and they just kind of — they witness and “amen” the kind of
things that you are and that you say and that you come up with, etcetera, etcetera.
So, in terms of specifics in relation to this particular project, I talked to a local
jazz musician, and the thing that really — I wanted to, again, get a sense of, to hear,
some of these stories that took place in the 50s in Detroit in relation to music, and as I
talked to him, the thing that impressed me most was not just the stories about jazz —
I mean, he had millions of those — but the sense that, how much of a teacher he was.
The first time I went to his house to talk to him he got a phone call, and it was
from a kid who he had — the kid’s father at some point had put him out of the house,
it was some kind of disciplinary problem or whatever — and this musician had
taken the kid into his home and allowed him to live in the basement. He taught him
music, taught him just the basics of being a human being. And this kid was calling
from — he’d gotten a scholarship to some music conservatory or something, and he
was simply calling to say that he had gotten the scholarship and he was doing fine
and dot dot dot.
So it was this kind of thing that impressed me, particularly in relation to this
Musicians have a kind of attitude, or a kind of philosophy, which nobody’s
ever written down, on how you deal with younger people — the younger generation.
And I think Detroit really has a very rich history in terms of jazz, of music, and a
part of that, it seems to me, is that there was always this very giving kind of attitude
by the older musicians to the young. I mean, there was no kind of barrier set up, you
know — “I’m older than you, and I’m hipper than you, and somehow you have to
make it for yourself.” There was always this kind of sharing sensibility, which to me
is very African in terms of its orientation.
So I wanted to get the idea in the play of “the Detroit way,” where you take a
younger — it’s like, “each one/teach one.” An older musician takes a younger
musician and hand-carries him through this process, so that the younger cat
doesn’t make a lot of the mistakes that the older one did, dot dot dot. I really wanted
that sense in the piece, the whole idea of bridging generations, and that idea, it
seems to me, is one of the things that we’re gonna have to get to, not only in the
Black community but everywhere else, where you are gonna have to be able to
bridge these things between genders and everything else.
The completed version of the play has the phrase, “the Detroit way,” which
becomes a kind of refrain in the piece, and they simply say:
“It’s the Detroit way, like we used to do it ….”
“He could learn, if he wanted to. You would teach him.”
“The Detroit way ….”
“Uh-huh ….”
And it’s just that kind of back-and-forth, hopefully jazz-rhythmic kind of
progression that happens on the page and that will eventually come across on the
stage. Even after you get into rehearsal and even after it gets mounted, you still kind
of tinker with it — it’s a constant kind of thing that happens. And it will depend —
the final version, how it will actually be on stage — it depends on the sound of the
actors’ voices, the kind of rhythms the director uses, all those kinds of things.
1 Bill Harris, Woodie King, Jr. and Sam
Jackson during the premiere of New
Federal Theatre’s production of “Robert
Johnson: Trick the Devil,” Henry Street
Settlement: Abrons Arts Center,
February, 1993, New York City.
2 Hilberry Theatre marquee during run
of “Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil,”
June, 2001, Detroit.
3 Cast of “Robert Johnson: Trick the
Devil”: Guy Davis, Jim Bergwell, Denise
Burse-Mickelbury, Grenoldo Frazier and
Herman Jones, February, 1993,
New York City.
4 Bill Harris, Woodie King, Jr. and Ossie
Davis, February, 1993, New York City.
5 Harris in rehearsals for “Cool Blues,”
All Stars Project Castillo Theatre,
February, 2011, New York City.
6 Set for “Queen of Sheba,” St. Louis
Black Repertory Theatre, April 23, 1998,
St. Louis.
7 “Cool Blues” program and cast photos,
March 10, 2011, New York City.
8 Bill Harris in rehearsal for “Cool Blues,”
All Stars Project Castillo Theatre,
February, 2011, New York City.
9 “Cool Blues” rehearsal, February 2011,
New York City.
10Set for “Cool Blues,” New Federal
Theatre production at Henry Street
Settlement: Abrons Arts Center/
Underground Theatre, February, 2011,
New York City.
“Dewitt Meets Picasso”
excerpt f rom “Just Like in the Movies,”
a novel manuscript
An eighth-grade class, Dwyer Elementary School, Detroit’s North End,
Monday, April 12, 1954.
uring free drawing periods in Mrs. Weeks’ art class, DeWitt drew
war pictures, pictures of Russian MiG type fighter planes in dog
fight duels, their wing-mounted machine guns spitting death;
B-52 type planes raining bombs from their open bays as enemy
anti-aircraft artillery ACK-ACKed at them from down below.
He also drew pictures of foot soldiers, their fixed bayonets at the ready, charging up
body-littered hillsides at enemy troops charging down to engage them, their fixed
bayonets at the ready, in man to man, hand to hand combat.
His drawings were good. They filled the page and he had an excellent sense of
color and composition and movement, Mrs. Weeks said.
Yeah, the boys agreed, a hint of envy and a gleam in their eyes like the ones that
shone there in the darkness of the Saturday show, as, in the last reel, Good butted heads
with Evil to the sound of gunshots or steel on steel and the outcome teetered in the
balance. Yeah, the boys agreed. Dewitt’s drawings were real good. They were horrible,
grimaced the girls. Just awful. Though, if pushed, they would agree that, yes, he could
draw, better than any of them, boys or girls, it was just that if he would only draw
something nice for a change, like people posed in a line outside the family house, by the
family car, with the sun shining round and yellow-orange above them, or children
playing with a red ball in a field of green grass, or something, anything besides war all
the time. It was enough, their expressions said, to make somebody sick.
In Mrs. Weeks’ art class, they did not just do art, drawing, coloring, cutting, pasting
and paintings; they studied about it. From time to time, Mrs. Weeks had shown them
what she called “reproductions” of paintings by “the Old Masters,” guys who had been
dead a hundred years or more. Most of them had been pretty easy to get: the people
looked like people, the trees like trees, chairs like chairs. The sky was blue. There were a
lot of them about Jesus and Bible stories and landscapes and even some with Greek
gods and goddesses who didn’t have all their clothes on, like in some of the sword
fighting or gladiator movies. Then she began showing them ones by another group,
“School” she called them, even though they didn’t really all go to the same school.
Walter Armstrong argued they should be called gangs. “The Impressionists” she said
were one of the most famous schools. These were a little tougher. To get some of them
required squinted eyes and extra concentration. But after she told them it was a lily
pond or a church or something, they could get it pretty easy.
Being able to understand art, Mrs. Weeks told them, was as important and as
useful as being able to read or count change or cook or lay down a bunt. When she said
it to them, it did not sound like other adults telling them to eat their spinach “because
it was good for them,” or that knowing the capital of Idaho, or the chief agricultural
export of Buenos Aires would help them grow up to be good citizens. When she said it,
she said it almost the way one of their buddies would tell them what was on a test they
had missed, or what so-and-so had said about them behind their back. And maybe it
was because they could tell that Mrs. Weeks really believed what she said about art, and
she really believed that it was important, and that if they didn’t know that, then they
would be missing something good, something too good to miss. She also told them that
just because, at first, an art object might be different from what they were used to, or it
might be hard to understand, that was no excuse to laugh at it or think it was stupid.
She added, “Just like with people,” but she didn’t dwell on that like a lot of adults would
have, she just trusted them to be mature enough to understand the parallel — or that
there was one — whether they were or not.
That morning she brought in a reproduction of a painting. “It’s by Pablo Picasso,”
she said.
“That guy with the Blues Period,” Augusta Swann remembered.
“That’s right,” Mrs. Weeks said. The title of the picture was “Guernica.”
That was all she was going to tell them about it, except that it was painted about
15 years ago in Spain.
She then called for DeWitt to join her at the front of the class so that he could
interpret it for them.
He stood and made his way slowly to the front, as if it was the cell-lined Death
Row in a prison picture and he was taking that walk down the Last Mile on his way to
the Hot Seat. He took the reproduction from the teacher and studied it for a long time,
holding it so that the class could see it also. He took a deep breath and began.
“This here piece of art, done in the abstract Cubist style, is about war, see. Just
like my stuff.” He looked up at them, daring anybody to laugh. “I ain’t sure if it’s one of
them wars we studied about in Social Studies or not, or if these is supposed to be the
good side or the bad side.” He paused to consider it. “But I don’t think that make no
difference in this picture,” he decided. “But anyway, I’m thinking it ain’t no regular war
zone that’s getting bombed, ’cause there’s this bull in there and this horse that’s getting
blowed up, see, along with these peoples. But the people, mostly womens and some
babies too, from what I can make out. Maybe they in their bomb shelter or something,
yeah, I think maybe that’s it — and so, that’s all.”
He stopped and looked at their teacher. He seemed embarrassed at having talked
so much.
“Is the artist — what was his name class?”
“Pablo Picasso!” they shouted.
“Was Pablo Picasso for or against war?” she asked DeWitt.
“Against it,” he said without hesitation.
“Like your stuff,” she said, with a slight smile.
“He saying it’s stupid and maybe crazy to be blowing up them womens and
babies and horses and stuff. They ain’t no soldiers. They just innocent bystanders. Don’t
nobody need to be blowing them up — anyway, that what I get out of it.”
“Why do you think Picasso didn’t use any colors?
No one knew.
“You see he limited his palette to grays and blacks,” she said.
DeWitt raised his hand even though he was already standing in front of the class.
“Thems ghost colors,” he said. “And death.”
Clarice Brown laughed.
“That’s a very good guess,” Mrs. Weeks said. “Very good. And now, one more question.”
DeWitt shifted uncomfortably.
“What size would you guess this painting is? The real one?”
DeWitt could not guess. Neither could the class when she asked them.
It was a mural, she told them. They knew what a mural was. “It’s almost 12 feet
high, and over 20 feet long.”
They were impressed and looked up at the walls of the room, trying to imagine a
painting of that size.
“That’s smart,” DeWitt said, nodding his head. “I’d make it that big if I had a chance.”
“Why?” Mrs. Weeks asked.
“So they could see what I was talking about. How it’s stupid and crazy. It would
be like dropping a art bomb on the people to get them to see how stupid war is.”
He looked at her again, anxious to be told he could return to his seat.
“That was a very good interpretation, DeWitt. Thank you very much for your insights.”
“That’s okay,” he said as he held the picture out to return it to her.
“It’s for you,” she said, “if you want it.”
For a moment he did not move. Then he looked at the class. He was wearing his
mean look, warning them again about laughing. He mumbled Thank You, and without
looking at Mrs. Weeks again he took his seat.
“The Custodian of the Dream Book”
excerpt from “Just Like in the Movies,”
a novel manuscript
T m
Saturday, April 3
still need me a good figure for today,” Adair said.
Raz told him to ask Fastball.
Everybody looked at Eddie at the rear of the shop where he was working
on a pair of pointed-toed black Stacy Adams oxfords with white stitches
around the soles. Eddie’s customers had to ascend the two, high gray
marble steps in order to take a seat and place their shine-needy shoes on
the ornate metal footrests. The stand was a three seater of darkening oak, chocolate
brown leather, and brass-headed brads. The curved arms that separated the padded seats
featured carved fauna of as an anonymous a phylum as the real life giants on the
platform that ran the length of the front window. There the two, big, more brown than
green, thick-stalked potted plants framed the storefront window with the arching sign
in red letters shadowed in white:
“He just a boy,” Adair said.
A boy getting a chance none of us didn’t have, or didn’t take advantage of, Raz
said, talking about education. And he’s doing something with it, Prentis added.
Prentis was the little barber who had the middle chair, on Raz’s right. Raz had
the first chair, the one nearest the entrance.
The barbershop was across the street from the New Villa Bar, Eddie’s father’s
favorite, in the eleven thousand six hundred block of Oakland, between Englewood and
Rosedale, the second block down on the way to school from Mrs. Beasley’s.
“I’ve known plenty of educated fools,” Adair said.
Raz and Prentis, the two regular-through-the-week barbers, had been arguing
about whether Charles Laughton or Sydney Greenstreet played Captain Bligh in
Mutiny on the Bounty.
They led most of the arguments because they would argue about anything and
their opinions were almost assuredly as different as they were in appearance. Mutt and
Jeff. Prentis could not have been much taller than five foot nothing soaking wet, as Raz
said. He kept his chair cranked all the way down and stood on a wooden Pepsi-Cola
crate to cut hair.
Raz, on the other hand, as Prentis said, was well over six foot plenty something.
His chair was cranked up almost as high as it could go. Raz kept a cigar clamped in his
teeth all during the day. He wouldn’t light it until he had cut the last customer’s hair
and was stropping his razor in preparation for the next day’s work.
Eddie was sometimes called on by Raz to be the arbiter in certain kinds of
disputes. There were usually ones that involved what the barbershop regulars called
school learning — where a specific answer, such as a name or date or an amount —
would clear up the point of contention. Eddie had settled the Charles Laughton versus
Sydney Greenstreet question, reminding them of Laughton’s appearances in The
Hunchback of Notre Dame and Captain Kidd, and Greenstreet’s Maltese Falcon and
Casablanca roles.
Eddie was never called on to decide any matter that had to do with women or
how things had been down home, things, they said, that couldn’t be learned out of no
books, and were therefore outside his experience.
Eddie liked Raz. He liked when Raz called him Little Professor sometimes,
Fastball or School Boy at other times. Others sometimes called him Little Jack. Jack
was what they called his father; real name John. It all started when he and his father
began rooming over the candy store with Mrs. Beasley, two blocks up Oakland, and
came to the Raz’s to get their haircuts. In those days, 6 or 7 years ago, when Eddie was
5 or 6, Raz had to place a board across the arms of the barber chair for Eddie to sit on
for the extra height. Eddie remembered the day his father said to Raz that he was
thinking maybe the board wasn’t needed anymore. Raz agreed.
“Besides,” Adair continued, almost pouting, “he ain’t the only one been to school.”
Raz told Adair, Eddie was the only one in here been to school up here, where the
school got more than one room, meet most of the year ’round, and the teacher cared
whether you learn something or not.
“What?” Mr. Jenkins said. He was a little hard of hearing and didn’t like to
miss anything.
Mr. Jenkins came in every morning about ten o’clock when his daughter, who
had left her husband and moved back home, got out the bed and started stirring
around. He leaned forward a little in his chair, lined with the others along the wall
facing the barbers.
Behind Raz and Prentis was the big mirror where, when they’d finished cutting a
customer’s hair and had given him a chance to appraise the results with a hand mirror,
they would spin him around (Prentis getting down off his box first) and let the customer
face himself head-on in the looking glass lighted by the glow of a line of near-blue
fluorescent tubes.
Scotch-taped to the mirror behind Raz’s chair was the license certifying Willie
Lee Simpkins qualified to provide tonsorial services in the State of Michigan. Taped
next to it was the photograph. Eddie remembered it from the days when he still had to
sit on the board. Even then the photo was curling at the corners and changing color
like an eternal autumn leaf. Young Raz and the other members of the all-colored
baseball team in their loose-fitting uniforms with BROWNS in bold letters sewn in an arch
across each of their shirts.
His nickname Raz, short for razor, came not from his present profession, but
from his pro baseball days. The name was given to him, he had explained, by the poor,
unfortunate colored, and occasional white boys, who faced him when he was playing in the
Negro Leagues, back before Jackie Robinson broke the barrier into the white professional
big leagues in ’47. His fastball had been so sharp the nickname naturally followed.
Windexing the mirror was one of the chores Eddie had been responsible for the
last four months of Saturdays he had been Raz’s Tonsorial Parlor’s shoeshine boy. He
also ran errands, kept track of the order in which the customers came in, brushed them
off with a whisk broom after their haircut, and swept and mopped up at closing time.
Forrest, who had been dozing, mumbled into his chest, agreeing with Adair
about educated fools. Prentis was giving him a razor line along his neck. As a preamble
to a story Forrest was starting to say he remembered one time when, when Adair said a
figure had to feel right before he would put his money on it. He said it quick and loud,
trying to cut Forrest off.
Adair continued cursing himself for playing 263 the day before. It had come out
straight. He’d known better than not to play it, but he hadn’t been thinking. 263 fell
every time he had a buzzing in his ear and his old lady’s mama made meatloaf ! The last
time it’d come out was in February.
Mr. Jenkins nodded, verifying it, and agreed 263 was a good number. Lovecraft,
who was getting his Stacy Adams shined, had caught it that time. Hadn’t had but a
dime on it. Should’ve sweetened it, but he hadn’t, even though he’d seen it on a license
plate yesterday morning as he was coming out of the Big Bear market up on Woodward.
Lovecraft had lost his right hand in a stamping machine up the street in Highland Park
Chrysler plant. He was on a disability pension. He kept saying he was going to get a
ticket and go back to Georgia, buy a farm and raise chickens and hogs.
“All right, Raz right,” Adair said. He looked to Eddie. “Fastball, you got a good
mind. Give a good number.” His earlier attitude was forgotten. Nobody, no matter how
loud the argument, seemed to stay angry for long.
Eddie did not remember when he had first realized how much the men in the
barbershop respected education, even though, or maybe because, they generally had so
little formal schooling themselves. That was, he thought, why they bothered with him.
They had heard, through his father or Raz, how well he did in school, and some of
them were proud of him, just as proud in their way as his father or Mrs. Beasley were in
theirs, and they sought to encourage him.
The greatest proof of their pride was not in the tips they gave him for services
rendered, followed by an admonishment to put it in the bank “for his education.” Even
greater than that was making him the custodian of the Dream Book.
The New
1954 Edition
The Original
Three Wise Men
Dream Book
The number’s players Encyclopedia Britannica and Bible.
It was kept in the shoeshine stand drawer next to the ones where Eddie kept his
polish, rags and brushes. “The Red Devil Almanac,” the “Black Cat,” or “Prof. Hitts’
Rundown and Workout” among them. But the barbers and customers of Raz’s preferred
“The Three Wise Men.”
“938,” Eddie said.
Mr. Jenkins smiled.
“938,” Adair said, nodding. “Yeah — 938. That sound like one I can work with. I
knew you had lots of sense. 938.”
938 — Hoping.
“Hey, Eddie, man!”
“Hey, DeWitt, man!”
“What you doing here?”
“Working, man.”
“Shining shoes, huh?”
“Yeah, man.”
“Yeah, man, cool. I come to get me a haircut.”
“Yeah, man, cool.”
Eddie introduced DeWitt as his new friend. Had just transferred into school
from down south. Raz said he’d take good care of him.
“Black Detroit, 1970”
Sometime in the
late 60s, Bill Harris
was asked to write
on the Detroit
Black Community,
or the DBC, as he
calls it, for “Detroit
a young guide to
the city.“
Edited by Sheldon
Annis and
published by
Publications, the
first printing of
the book occurred
in 1970.
The photos
throughout this
essay are the
work of Bill Harris,
taken in the early
1970s in Detroit.
Because Detroit is the city responsible for
the auto/motion of the nation, and because the
auto is the nation’s largest and most profitable
industry, Detroit is basically a working-man’s
town. A great deal of money is made here by
those who provide the labor. Blacks employed in
automobile factories comprise the bulk of the
middle class of the DBC and their motion (they
hope) will be from rents to mortgages — to the
world at the other end of the expressway, next
door to their white counterparts in the subdivided
tracts. Customers. Believers in commercials and
tv. That remote. That removed.
It is the black people who stay inside who
will take care of the necessary business, the real
work of meaningful progress which has begun
and which must be continued and expanded for a
million or so reasons. There is always a sense of
life in any black community but here in Detroit
nation’s fifth largest city to a complete halt. (The
kind of power that white America has used
throughout its history as justification for sticking
out its nationalistic chest). There is a great deal of
pride now because it was something they had
done together.
There is a motion, a purposeful fingerpopping, headshaking, loose hipped motion at all
times of the day and night. The brothers and
sisters go about their business in and out of
buildings that house the echoes of the passage
of urban minorities.
Another part of the motion is an impatient
restlessness of the brother on the street who takes
daily mental inventory and who is acutely aware
that there has been insufficient progress down at
his, the grass root/concrete level. This was the
problem before and it remains the problem today,
compounded daily by the inability or lack of
that feeling of brotherhood
has been augmented by an
even deeper sense of trust
and comradeship. Black
people are taking chances
on themselves that they have never taken before.
Go down a black street and see, hear, feel the new
sense of pride and awareness. Much of this has
happened since July 1967 when the DBC turned
a lot of A&P’s into basketball courts and burned
out a lot of rats, roaches and owners who infested
their neighborhoods. (This period saw a significant
change in black leadership and the tunes to which
they danced, the boogaloo replacing, finally and
forever, the buckdance.) The DBC was a little
awed by the power it generated in bringing the
commitment or concern,
(depending on who you talk to)
on the part of those with the
power. Also, there is the near
shuffling motion of secondchance-seeking blacks going into Community
Centers, up rickety stairs to dark rooms with
push-button phones. Forms piled on splintering
wooden desks beneath peeling ceilings. A phalanx
of understanding-educated blacks and whites
coming from meetings, full of daylight enthusiasm
and programs. Hundreds and hundreds of
programs that amount to no more than drops.
Drops that cause no waves.
But, brothers make it with or without
federal programs. They make it the way they have
he initial motion into the Detroit Black Community (DBC) was
the movement of thousands of southern blacks to whom the big
cities of the North were the “home” they (or their parents) sang
about in “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “I’m Marching to Zion,” or
“Walk Into Jerusalem,” i.e., any of the coded songs voicing their
hopes and plans for escape to that golden shore on the other side of Jordon.
The promised land. For some it worked out that way. For most it didn’t. These (transients
moved like low rank chess pieces on steel welfare strings, encountered the withering
ghosts of political and economic promises) moaned and mourned as the golden shore
tarnished before their sad but wiser eyes; hipped to the stuff of the urban blues, the big
city blues that talked about the situation just like it was.
The city they sang about in a lot of those blues is Mr. Ford’s $5 a day town. And
now, fifty or sixty years later, the offspring of these transplanted farm boys are the
nucleus of the DBC and are in the position that blacks of America will soon occupy.
They’re everywhere. As much as some people would like there to be, there is no
central ghetto that houses all blacks. Like the big sprawling city, the DBC has few
visible boundaries. It begins at the very center of the inner city (it is, in fact, the inner
city) and spreads, interlocked every mile of the way with the white community. The
DBC and the white community reflect each other like an image cast between mirrors
on two different walls, and it is not at all farfetched to say that as the blacks go, so goes
Detroit. To take it a step farther: as Detroit blacks go so go the blacks of America, for
Detroit is a cultural center and also one of the main political centers of black America.
The DBC is a microcosm of what is good and what is bad in the American society.
Some of the richest black men in America live in Detroit and, conversely, some of the
poorest and most bitter (not to say that the ones who are poorest are necessarily the
most bitter. See the report of the Kerner Commission for specifics.)
to: the way they can. Or, vice versa. They work hard to survive and play hard to forget
their powerlessness, and the outside world of the powerful. The owners. To be themselves,
to retain some identity, they dance and drink in the all black bars (the “all” refers to
employees and customers — not ownership); eat in the all black restaurants; do some of
their loving in the all black motels of 12th, 14th, Dexter, John R, Brush, the Boulevard,
or what’s left of them. Being themselves, the beautiful black people.
The phrase “black is beautiful” has been attributed to the late Reverend Martin
Luther King and he must have been in Detroit when he said it, for in the DBC the
clothes seem a little bit brighter, creases a little sharper, cars a little bit longer and lower,
dance steps a little bit more supple, hipper, highs even, a little bit higher.
There is a great deal of purposeful activity in the DBC despite all of the energy
wasting effort and motion involved in simply existing here. The business of building
something large and black and beautiful is going on without much centralized leadership
of the type that was emerging after July ’67. This type of leadership for the most part
has been jailed, infiltrated into impotence,
harassed into silence, bought off, or driven
back into the shadows to fester. So, the
responsibility for forward motion has been
placed in the hands of the people and the
people have gotten together and accepted
the responsibility. They are turning niggers,
who have been taught to fight against the
humanity of themselves, into men. Proud
black men. And the black communities are
about the only places in this country where
there is this motion. They are building a
civilization and maybe even saving one in
the process, but this is secondary. What
they are doing for themselves is primary.
The teachers, barbers, paperboys, mailmen,
preaches, factory workers, lawyers, artists,
judges, disc jockeys, garbage collectors, bus
drivers, car washers, all of them, are doing
it. Together.
Detroit is going to erupt again with an even greater force than before. A force
that will be felt by the people of the world. Black, brown, yellow, red, white. A spiritual
explosion of millions of “common” people of goodwill totally aware of themselves and
their history. Formed into a unit to declare and demand no more lies, stupidity, greed,
hatred, hypocrisy, no more compromises with their lives, no more concessions, etc., etc.,
etc., etc. Threatening even to go so far as to employ the very methods that have been
used to deny them their due, if it comes to that, against anyone who would seek to cut
them off from their possibilities. Go where they hide, uproot them, turn them around,
put the heat of black unity on them, topple them; million dollar businessmen with
dogeared copies of Harold Robbins latest in their brief cases, juicy fruit brained
housewives with pink plastic curlers, even sweet little old ladies rocking in front of TV
game shows, anyone who seeks in any way to be politicians of somebody else’s soul.
There is going to be the widest ranging, most all encompassing, all inclusive
revol(t sol)ution of any time, of any society, of any people, ever.
There will be a (second, maybe last) chance for you to peel the dead skin off your
conscience and concern, to stand knee deep in the mire of almost complete corruption
of the ethical, esthetic, and humane standards of this country, with a shovel. And dig!
Go. Enter into it. Help lay the foundation for this most multifaceted of endeavors: the
better of the lot of people. All people.
There is already a great deal of interest, among both black and whites, in the kind
of progress that blacks (and, as importantly, whites) will make in the near future. Without
much publicity a lot of people are putting in a lot of time and energy to see that, for the
right reasons, the June ’67 thing, doesn’t happen again. But still a lot of people don’t give
a damn. And you can hear things being sharpened. Loaded. Posses being formed.
Right now it could still go either way: for the blacks of Detroit (and America),
and for the whites of Detroit. And America.
On the west side less than an hour’s driving tour will take you through some of
the extremes of that
section of the Detroit
Black Community.
From thriving business
to throbbing poverty, as
close as around the
corner or in the next
block. From a new car
dealership to a hospital
with a black spectrum
in between. A sampler
for nibblers afraid to
bite off more than they
can swallow and keep
down at any one time.
Start at 14th and West Grand Blvd., and one of the more obvious examples of
black money. Conyer’s Ford (Congressman John and brother Nathan) doing big
business. Down 14th one block to Ferry Park. White’s just off the corner. One of the
few black owned record shops doing well. Left, down Ferry Park to 12th Street featuring
a couple of flats and a Cunninghams drugstore in the short block back to the Blvd.
Easing you into it. Across the Blvd. on the left hand side is the DSACE theatre,
temporary home of playwright Ron Milner’s Shango Theatre group. Then all of a
sudden 12th Street really gets to be 12th Street. As if by some white magic spell it gets
sick from neglect and withers and dies before you can blink, turning into tired bricks,
plywood and billboards advertising politicians and blues singers. Empties and dirt and
vacant lots. Broken things, abandoned. People. The Chit Chat Lounge; the entertainers,
the barmaids and Karate on Sunday announced in red letters over the door. 12th Street.
Virginia Park. Grace Episcopal Church and the Wall of Respect. Art coming back to
the people where it belongs. Functional, conceptual, rather than decorative or purely
intellectual (gray stripes on a black canvas or 20 foot square boxes for example). These
paintings by James Malone, Bill Walker, Curtis McNair and other local black artists
depict important events, people, etc., and become an integral part of the history of the
black family, taking on cultural importance lacking in much of western art.
Continuing down 12th. Small grocery
stores, Benny’s Flamingo Barber Shop. Ice cold
beer and wine to take out. Pick up a Chronicle,
journal of the black community. Euclid.
Philadelphia. Beer cans, trash, fire scarred
buildings. Pingree, Gladstone. Record stores.
Former pawn shops. Faded portraits in a locked
photo studio. The 12th Street Academy: education
and pride. A basketball court, and Clairmount!
John Lee Hooker wrote a song about it. Flames
and looters early one Sunday morning in July.
News all over the world. The Urban League
Community Service Center right there on the
corner in some kind of symbolic move. A phoenix
like residential section springs up suddenly at
Atkinson or Edison. Turn west (left) at Chicago.
“Boulevard” with a strip of tended grass down
the center. Trees. Multi-room brick residences on
double sized lots. Mowed lawns. Cars in every
driveway (as there are everywhere. They’ll sell cars
to anybody anywhere, houses are something else).
14th. LaSalle. Linwood and turn left. Sacred
Heart Seminary. A ¾ life size white stone statue
of Christ with a black face; painted during the
rebellion and that way ever since. Storefronts, gas
stations, beauty parlors. Clairmount again. Taylor,
Hazelwood, Gladstone and Philadelphia and the
New Bethel Baptist Church. Rev. C.L. Franklin
(Aretha’s daddy) presiding. One of the most
stylish of the big city type Baptist preachers still
around. Outside the church is modern (redesigned
by black architect Nathan Johnson). Bullet holes
inside, site of an armed confrontation in March
69. One policeman dead, 140 black men, women
and children arrested en masse. One black hero,
Judge George Crockett, emerged out of the
whole situation. Inter Faith Center on Taylor.
Greenleaf ’s Restaurant between Euclid and
Virgina Park. Soul food and just about the slowest
service in town. (Slowfood?) On the next corner
the Civil Rights Commission in a building with a
new face and green plastic letters. Linwood isn’t
nearly as bad as 12th if looks mean anything. The
United Tenants Organization is right next to
the Shrine of the Black Madonna, pastored by
Reverend Albert Cleage, long time black nationalist
leader and still one of the most exciting speakers
on the scene. The altar painting of the Black
Madonna by Glanton Dowdell has deservedly
received national publicity. It’s worth getting up
for Sunday morning services for the experience of
the painting.
At the Blvd. again turn right. Pass the Lee
Plaza, a senior citizen residence, the Rio Grande
Motel, Northwestern High School and the
Fisher YMCA at the corner of Dexter. Turn right
and head north through a well kept residential
section zoned also for funeral homes. Clairmount.
Black owned Our Supermarket to the left on Joy.
Big Star Recording Company, royalty child of
old Detroit bluesinger, Bobo Jenkins, at 4228.
Little Sam’s Bar farther down at 4444.
Apartments across Clairmount on Dexter.
Safari Bar at Chicago, Reverend John’s
Religious Supply House at Calvert, the defunct
Dexter Theatre at Burlingame. Operating as a
live black theater until Rap Brown had a rally
there a couple of years ago causing previously
undetected building violations to appear resulting
in the eventual closing. On the east side of the
Burlingame block heading north: Creations
Unlimited, Black Out Organization (BOO),
868-0310, dealing in information on all black
organizations and businesses. John’s House of
Jazz, a resale shop, and TV repair. Doil’s Hatland.
Tree of Wigs, Didney’s Bottom of the Barrel,
men’s fashions.
Another block. The east side. A bank front
church, Lord David’s rent-a-tux, and Mattie’s.
Excellent soul food, good prices, and the waitresses
take care of business with a smile. Next door is an
open front vegetable store, left over from the days
when this was a Jewish neighborhood with an
European market atmosphere.
Both sides of the street: Ed Davis Chrysler,
a black new car dealership that was one of the
first in the country. La Feminique Botique,
Haslip Shoes, Charisma, featuring a choice of
items with an international flair. Vaughn’s
Bookstore specializing in literature by and for
black people.
Richton. Cortland, Sturtevent. Hollywood
Fashion Clothes, House of Diggs, Esquire
Delicatessen, good corn beef 24 hours a day.
Another Jewish holdover. Le Player’s Men’s
Wear and the business section goes respectable
residential on down to Davison. Kirwood
Hospital to the left. Black owned and operated,
formerly the Jewish Community Center. Ample
evidence throughout this section that there is
hope, and also that a lot has to be done.
For a total contrast try the east side. It’s a
whole other country.
The lower east side. Acres of decay. Around
the general area of Mt. Elliot Cemetery. Sherman,
Antietam, Waterloo. Draw your own conclusions
from those names. McDougall, Monroe, Macomb,
Meldrum. Worn, drooping, rotten, rickety, busted.
Mullett, Madison, Montcalm. (A lot of the streets
don’t even bother to have name signs anymore.)
As in the old days this section is a way
station for poor migrants, who leave the south,
but not the rural way of life. Unskilled refugees.
Living hand to mouth under a tremendous gray
weight. Discards, no deposit, no return, who fled
the floods, boll weevils, and white folks of the
south, where the most they ever got was a bare
minimum: wages, education, opportunities, et al.
Anonymous old people. Fundamentalists.
Sanctified or into voodoo. Sitting or standing or
existing with a weary defenseless resignation.
Waiting for the bulldozers, among the weeds,
filth, and throw aways, in patched and paintless
houses with broken gingerbread trim.
Most of the young and more adventurous
are gone. Told to move (so, it was explained, and
therefore justified, that anti-suburb glass and steel
magnets might be erected, high rise, high price
monuments to progress and eradicators of
(somebody’s failure). Then gathered their things,
as they had always done, and left, for one of the
side streets off Mack and a less rural situation, or
the 12th Street area and the real urban blues. Away
from where the blues aren’t sung anymore. It’s just
a faint groan. But which continues to endure.
In 1972, artist Carole
Harris posed for
husband Bill Harris
in front of a work by
their friend and fellow
artist, Maceo Mitchell.
Gallery 7, Detroit.
He takes time with people­—
he never puts himself up on a
pedestal. He’s just an excellent
instructor — he’s the whole
package. He’s not only an
instructor, he’s a people person
who knows how to relate to
people on their level as opposed
to trying to bring people up to
his level. He makes everyone
think “you can do it.” Never
does he say you can’t.
Bill Harris is one of the major American playwrights and he is a major
American playwright because he understands literature, characterization
and he understands plot. That’s very, very hard to find in playwrights.
He’s deeply rooted in the craft, so his plays are extremely well crafted:
the subject and characters are people we know who take on universality.
aomi Long Madgett, Detroit poet
laureate, publisher/editor, and educator
I don’t think you’ll find a better writer than Bill, and I know hundreds
and hundreds. Bill is committed, he’s right at the top.
I love Bill’s storytelling, and the poetry in his storytelling.
“Riffs” is actually one of Bill’s scripts that keeps coming up in planning
around here (The St. Louis Black Repertory Company). It’s a comedy and
it’s just full of great older black male characters. Each one of those guys,
is such an interesting and vivid character! That has a lot to do with the
audience appeal but even more so the appeal that it has for the actors who
want to play those characters. The wildest, craziest storytelling! It’s just a
comic treat.
on Himes, Founder and Producing Director of The Black Rep/St. Louis
Black Repertory Company, St. Louis.
Bill — he’s all kinds of different things. He’s a genius. I think he’s one of the
most creative artists working in Detroit. He’s this generous, kind human
being. He’s into blues, and jazz. I mean no one can say anything bad about
him. He’s calm. He’s collected. He knows so much stuff !
Bill would not step on anybody to get somewhere, hurt anybody to get his
play onstage. He’s just more focused on the service and the community and
what he can contribute to it.
– M.L. Liebler, author, poet, literary activist and arts organizer
Bill has been a serious writer for as long
as I’ve known him — and we’ve been
friends off and on for almost 50 years.
– George Tysh, author, publisher, educator
Bill’s writing is about black
people — their problems,
their joys, their celebrations.
He gets the humor of black
culture and the underlying
sensitivity of black culture
— his characters speak so
naturally and unaffectedly,
you think “this is the
way that people in those
situations would act.”
He has a great knowledge
of people of different
socioeconomic situations.
He goes in and out of it
very easily — it’s part of
his talent that he can do
that, relate to all people.
ilda Vest, poet and
publisher of “Coda and
Riffs” at Broadside Press,
Bill Harris has made an
indelible impression upon my
heart with his chronicling of
African American culture in
our community. His work is a
written legacy and treasure for
all of us to see and hear.
– Marcus Belgrave, jazz
trumpeter, 2009 Kresge
Eminent Artist
– Woodie King, Jr., African American theater arts pioneer, founder and
producing director of The New Federal Theatre, New York City.
arriet Sturkey, former
Bill Harris was a perfect choice to win
the Eminent Artist Award. I can think
of no more deserving person. I have the
greatest respect for him.
I have known Bill for
many years. I have always
been interested in his
work but I knew his
writing mostly from his
plays. I thought to myself,
“I will pester him to do a
book of poetry.” He would
always remind me that he
was first and foremost a
writer of plays and prose.
But he did eventually say
“I’ll work on it,” and sure
enough one day in 1997,
the manuscript arrived:
“The Ringmaster’s Array,”
his trilogy of poetic
impressions. It just
worked on so many
different levels — the
personal, the historical,
the lyric.
Bill has such a take on
language. He has an
amazing ear for the
vernacular, for patois.
Whatever he’s writing
about, he can make that
sound really poetic and
poignant, and it doesn’t
come off as sounding
anywhere near gratuitous.
When Bill does it, you
find the story in the
language, the meaning
that he’s conveying. Pretty
good stuff.
– Dennis Teicher,
publisher, Past Tents Press,
Ferndale, Mich.
I like the way honest people tell the truth with what they are doing. I see that
in Bill’s work, that truth of conviction, that truth of understanding some of
the organization, the realities of nature. Everything comes out of nature’s
order. That kind of order gets us through the day without running into a tree.
It guides us and serves as a principle maker for what we do, the undercurrents
of what we make. It’s what I see in his work and feel in his presence when I’m
communicating with him. It’s just magnificent that someone is that aware and
is able to express it in words. I reach for the same thing but I use symbols for
an ocular point of view and his is from an audio-visual point of view. It’s all
about seeing and when I say seeing, I’m not talking about looking at something. I’m talking about seeing as understanding and then adding that slice of
lucidity to what we do.
– Charles McGee, painter, sculptor, 2008 Kresge Eminent Artist
As a writer, Bill is focused on being
a master. He is so dedicated to his
craft. He doesn’t worry about
accolades or money, he just talks
about getting the work done.
He’s a natural teacher. Our relationship has been about him teaching
me something, sharing some kind
of information with me. I really do
feel a little smarter after every
conversation with him.
– Charles L. Latimer, writer and
jazz critic, Metro Times, Detroit.
Bill’s influence [at InsideOut] was
profound and invigorating. Through his
understated, open-minded demeanor and
exacting love of language, he instilled a
courage and respect that enabled students
to express and value their voices. His
example was absolutely essential to the
birth and growth of InsideOut.
erry Blackhawk, Founder/Director,
InsideOut Literary Arts Project,
An Enduring Devotion to His Craft
Whatever his genre of choice, Bill Harris is essentially a
storyteller, concerned with the individual tales as well as the
collective saga of his people. He wants to get under the skin of
the characters he sees in the world, show us the dilemmas they
are facing, and what inspires their choices.
Emerging as a writer in the Black Arts period of the 1960s and 70s, Bill
joined his distinguished contemporaries in Detroit, playwright Ron Milner,
director Woodie King, Jr., and poet Dudley Randall, in the mission of that era:
to create a literature and theater where the struggles of African American people,
the brilliance of their folk wisdom, and their daily heroism would be revealed.
In Bill’s writings, one of the consistent motifs in the telling of these stories is the
cultural centrality of African American music and musicians.
Though Detroit as the Black consciousness mecca was the backdrop of Bill’s early
work, over subsequent decades, his recognition and influence as a writer extended
far beyond his hometown, through residencies and stage productions in New
York and other cities, and at major universities.
Before he joined the faculty at Wayne State University, I often invited
Bill to my classes as a guest who would inspire students to take their writing and
their creative gifts seriously. He projected an exemplary discipline and commitment
when he discussed his work with students. Reviewing the students’ efforts, he
would focus intensely, offer insights, and indicate a direction for further
development. Given Bill’s long tenure as professor in the Wayne State University
English Department, certainly hundreds of students have benefitted from this
deeply attentive approach to teaching writing.
Of course, Bill inspired his fellow artists as well, always inquiring,
“What are you working on?” — urging us on in his keenly perceptive,
terse style. His genuine involvement with a broad community of
cultural activists represents one of the important roles Bill has
played over many years — always with his “no fanfare” demeanor.
In addition, through his service on the boards of numerous art
agencies, he has been engaged consistently in the institutional
work required to ensure a thriving arts community.
It has been a profound pleasure to have Bill as a colleague at Wayne State University, but even
more rewarding to have his friendship over the span of our entire adult lives. For his generous
appreciation and encouragement of creative work wherever he encounters it, for his many years
of absolute devotion to his own calling as a writer, and for a scrupulously crafted body of work
that elucidates some of the most important issues of our time, I celebrate Bill as a recipient
of the Kresge Eminent Artist Award!
loria House, Ph.D.
Educator, poet and community activist Gloria House wrote her original essay expressly for this publication.
To The Ring Master: Blue Moses
Mornings he took his walk around
east-downtown to the cobalt rivers edge
or west over the freeway across 12th
passing the boarded up, the burnt out
the squatters, the old Serengeti.
He might go north to Mid-Town
down the boulevard past the Fisher
the Coney, the Old GM, Henry Fords’
even south past the forsaken graffiti
walls of the abandoned Studebaker plant.
Whichever way the wind was blowing
he thought that’s the way he’d be going
that walking should be easy, walking
in rhythm.
He would stop to take pictures
of extraordinary neglect; old Detroit structures,
lost work gloves — gloves plastered and weathered
against the asphalt; like some of the people
he’d meet and greet (never breaking stride)
with a bit o change and a smile.
We’d break bread and say good bye
he’d return to his hollow to vibe
on Bird, or cats like Weston; gloss lessons.
At the comfort of his personal keyboard
he would sit to attempt to compose his music
If the wind was at his back he wouldn’t crack
and you couldn’t stop him until the story was told.
He saved lives. He hipped us to Lester Young
Max Roach, his meaning of art; tight jawed,
Black eyed, he didn’t let the world tear him apart.
His rule of the game from start was, “Don’t do any harm.”
His black eye captured the musical heartbeat of souls
that ring master that told it like it was. The biddle dee
Parker could see. He always had time for us
none of his goodbyes were gone.
homas Park, poet, educator
Mr. Park wrote his original poem expressly
for this publication in honor of his former
teacher, Bill Harris.
Segments of
quilted tapestry
works by artist
Carole Harris.
“Epistrophy,” and
left,”Fire Music.”
Our Congratulations
Writers work in what Octavio Paz called a labyrinth of solitude: a place
where they can dream and contrive, and nurture their fidelity to language
and their compulsion to create magic. Detroit’s own Bill Harris is a magic-maker
1 September, 1974, Belle Isle, Mich.
2 B
ill Harris with pioneering science
fiction writer Octavia Butler at the
Charles H. Wright Museum of African
American History, April 1994, Detroit.
3 Bill Harris with self-portrait in progress, 1963, Detroit.
4Carole and Bill Harris with Carole’s artwork, Charles H. Wright Museum of
African American History, Detroit.
and a man of letters in the truest sense. He has been a modest yet compelling force in
Detroit’s — and the nation’s — literary community for decades, producing highly
esteemed works of literature, hybrid forms of poetry, plays, novels, essays and criticism.
For these accomplishments, as well as for his mentorship of young writers and his
innumerable contributions to our community, it is our pleasure to present the 2011
Kresge Eminent Artist Award to Bill Harris.
Each year, the Kresge Eminent Artist Award recognizes a Metropolitan Detroit
artist whose work and career exemplify sustained, outstanding achievement and a
commitment to sharing that work with the local community. Bill Harris is inarguably
eminent, and we are honored to bestow this award on such an astonishing talent.
Nominations for the award are made by the Kresge Arts in Detroit Advisory
Council, a volunteer group of leaders in the Metropolitan Detroit cultural community
who provide external oversight to the program. The 2011 award recipient was selected
by an independent panel of three distinguished members of Detroit’s literary community:
Dora Apel, associate professor and W. Hawkins Ferry Chair of Modern and
Contemporary Art History at Wayne State University; Vince Carducci, cultural
critic and adjunct faculty in liberal arts at the College for Creative Studies and lecturer
in sociology at Oakland University; W. Kim Heron, writer and editor of the alternative
weekly The Metro Times. Kresge Arts in Detroit is grateful to the panelists for their hard
work and sensitivity to this important task.
If art is the highest form of hope, Detroit has a great future. Artists like Bill
Harris, and his fellow Eminent Artists Charles McGee (2008) and Marcus Belgrave
(2009), define what is extraordinary about our great city and its cultural community —
unwavering energy, imagination and dedication to our hometown. Our congratulations
and thanks to Bill Harris for making Detroit a better place.
Michelle Perron
Kresge Arts in Detroit
Life in a Masterful Key
Writer Bill Harris chronicles the African American experience in a
soaring theatrical and literary canon, scoring his stories in a distinct
poetic blend of lyricism, finesse and oh, yes, jazz.
Sue Levytsky
writes about the
arts and popular
culture. Her
original essay is
based upon her
interviews with
Bill Harris in 2011
and was written
expressly for this
Sue Levytsky
2011 has been quite the year for playwright,
poet, critic, novelist and educator Bill
Harris. Harris turned 70 this year and his
protean talents have kept the native Detroiter
writing, editing, and generally creating at a
breathtaking pace. Harris has just published a
critically acclaimed hybrid work of prose and
poetry on minstrelsy — “Birth of a Notion or
the Half Ain’t Never Been Told” — with its
sequel, “Booker T & Them: A Blues” moving
toward release. His newest play, “Cool Blues,”
a reimagining of the last hours of jazz legend
Charles “Bird” Parker, had its premiere with
New York’s New Federal Theatre in March
with further productions scheduled for later
this year.
And though newly retired from Wayne
William A. Harris charming his baby photographer,
clearly captivated by the experience of having his
State University, where he first started teaching
picture taken.
creative writing as Distinguished Faculty in 1989,
Harris revealed in a recent interview for WDET
Detroit “at this point, I’m continuing to hit my stride.”
Indeed, there seems to be no stopping Bill Harris now, perhaps never. Harris
has been one of Detroit’s leading literary and theatrical lights for more than 40
years, earning national acclaim for his moving and insightful examinations of the
black working class. Harris’ most celebrated work often centers on the life and
times of a black jazz man: blues singer and guitarist Robert Johnson in “Robert
Johnson: Trick the Devil,” Motown master Harold “Beans” Bowles in “Coda” and
Charles Parker, in his book of poetry, “Yardbird Suite: Side One,” winner of the 1997
Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award.
“Bill writes about the humanness of people, and interwoven in that is the
experience of being a black man that is just different, always on the outer edge, on
the outside,” says artist Carole Harris, his wife of nearly 45 years. Harris’ plays,
including productions of “Stories About the Old Days,” that starred jazz singer
Abbey Lincoln, and “Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone,” that featured Denzel Washington
and S. Epatha Merkerson, have seen more than 70 productions internationally.
Early Airs and Influences
Bill Harris grew up as an only child in the Detroit
of the 40s and 50s, having moved north from
Anniston, Ala., with his mother at the age of
two. They settled on the East Side, into a home
and neighborhood filled with family and folk
who would provide Harris with his nascent
inspirations. “My grandmother had five
children and at Christmas, everybody had
to be at her house — from Birmingham,
Buffalo and Detroit. For years, I was the only
child, so there were all these adults and me.
The thing that interested me most was the
feeling in that room on Christmas Day as they
relaxed and started telling stories about the old days. I saw
them in an entirely different way in those
moments. They weren’t worried about work,
about bills, none of the real life stuff. It
was a kind of sharing, filled with love and
companionship and everything that stuff is
supposed to be.” (Harris would later dramatize
such sociable moments in his plays, providing
audiences with what he calls “the sharing of
a shared past.”)
Harris was a serious youth, intellectual
and determined, earning high grades and praise
from teachers along with notable prizes such
as The Scholastic Writing Award while still
at Dwyer Elementary School. “Bill was an
introspective child, very bookish,” says wife
Carole. “I loved the library as a kid,” remembers
Harris. “It was like a mile away from my house,
on Woodward and King — the Utley branch.
That’s where I found out about these other
possibilities, this world of literature.”
Harris would attend Cass Technical
High School, majoring in commercial art and
continuing his studies in the fine arts at
Highland Park Community College. He earned
Graduation from Cass Tech, 1959.
his undergraduate and graduate degrees in
English from Wayne State University in the
1970s upon returning from military duty in 1968.
Harris started what would become his first
critically acclaimed play, “No Use Crying,” on the
plane home from Germany, where he had been
stationed as a Personnel Specialist, Rank Sp-4.
Bill Harris, budding
Detroit, 1952.
Harris was not, however, politicized. “I wasn’t into the civil rights thing,” he
says. “I was still figuring out how to be black.”
Harris would continue honing his craft in his native city but felt a move to
New York was imminent by 1980. “I wanted to write for theater and there was a
great deal of theater in Detroit but in order to do what the masters do you have to be
where the masters are, so I went and tried to see if I was indeed a proper playwright.”
New York would further expose Harris to the dynamic jazz musicians who
would figure so prominently in his future plays. Harris would remain in New York
for a number of years, finding inspiration and material first as production coordinator
for Jazzmobile, a jazz production and music education organization that has
featured performances by John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Cecil Taylor, and other
jazz greats and later at Woodie King, Jr.’s New Federal Theatre. “Bill was our
company production manager. He interfaced with some of the most talented writers
in America at New Federal,” recalls King, Jr. “Amiri Baraka … Ed Bullins … Ben
Caldwell … Melvin Van Peebles. They were all very disappointed when Bill went
back to Detroit to teach at Wayne.”
In 1972, Bill Harris found himself at the center of Ron Milner’s The Spirit of Shango Theatre Company in Detroit. The company was noted
for its productions of dramas culturally relevant to Detroit’s black community.
Finding His Voice
Detroit bubbled with all manner of intellectual and artistic activity during the 60s
and 70s and Harris would soon find himself — as a writer — with “a foot in two
different places.” “On the one hand, there was Ron Milner, who was a black writer
writing black stuff and I was dealing with him and trying to figure out what to write
and what form it would take. And on weekends, I’m dealing with this white group
who are talking about music and poetics and their love of jazz.”
Playwright Ron Milner and black theater pioneer Woodie King, Jr., would
play seminal roles in the development of Harris’ theatrical career. Milner, to gain
fame for his plays “Who’s Got His Own” and “What the Wine Seller Buys” became a
lifelong mentor to Harris, encouraging his work and acting as a springboard for his
play ideas. King, Jr. would later come to be an invaluable collaborator and supporter
of Harris’ work, producing a number of his plays, including “No Use Crying,” “Every
Goodbye Ain’t Gone,” “Coda,” “Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil” and “Trio.”
Harris was also looking for critical feedback on his literary work and would
often read his latest poems at the Cass Corridor meetings of the writers, artists,
poets and jazz musicians collectively known as the Detroit Artists’ Workshop. It was
a tantalizing, provocative mix of personalities and agendas. “Amiri Baracka was a
major influence on all of us who were in the Detroit Artists’ Workshop together. It
was his poetic side, his way of putting words together on the page, the breaking
with convention. For me, this was as important as the whole political side of what he
was saying. The way he was saying things, his lack of reservation about saying it
and his right to say it and all of that. Huge.”
The newly married Carole and Bill Harris, 1967.
Bill Harris off-duty in Gebersdorf, Germany, 1968. As an
African American couple, Bill and Carol had difficulty
obtaining off-base housing in post-war Germany.
Harris returned to Detroit in 1987, writing “Coda,” through a commission from
the Attic Theatre, underwritten with assistance from a Guggenheim Foundation
Award. “Coda” was eventually produced in 1990.
The Harris Sound
All of Harris’ plays, either in content or in form, come out of music — primarily jazz
or blues. It has been said he writes like a musician, with a rhythmic sensibility and a
cadence that unforgettably enlivens the dialogue in his plays. “The Detroit rhythm
in Bill’s work, it’s really in sort of a sync with a Midwest rhythm, a sort of working
Carole and Bill Harris at the White House in 1998. As a distinguished artist from the State of Michigan, Carole was invited to create an
ornament for the White House tree.
Bill Harris at an exhibition of his photographs at the Pontiac
Creative Arts Center, February 1998.
rhythm, of the working class guy,” says producer and director Ron Himes. Himes
has staged many productions of Harris’ plays at The St. Louis Black Repertory
Company (now known as The Black Rep). “I just love the poetry in his story telling.”
The downbeat came during Harris’ teen years, i.e., Detroit’s golden age of jazz,
when bebop reigned along the Woodward strip. “Music is really important because
I hear that and somehow it’s a part of everything I do and whatever it is that is the
spirit in that music and behind that music and really where that music comes from
in terms of the various elements that go into the whole African thing and the blues
thing, all of that, hopefully, is a part of the writing,” said Harris in a 1983 interview with
Solid Ground: A New World Journal. “Jazz and blues, these, and other types of music,
play as prominent a role in my life as they do in my work. The idea of improvising
within a form, whether in life, music or playwriting is basic to my existence.”
of InsideOut, along with Blackhawk. “That program has grown to include 20 schools
and is now headquartered on the Wayne State University campus,” reports Harris.
Over the course of his teaching career, Harris nurtured many aspiring poets,
playwrights and novelists. Just retired, he was a valued member of the Wayne State
University English department, where he sat on numerous boards and selecting
panels. He has been a featured artist in Wayne State University Press’ Made in
The Harris Way
Bill Harris has provided a rich lode of knowledge and expertise to Detroit and its
citizens, giving back as a teacher, mentor, cultural steward, literary activist and
community historian. Harris would insist that he is only doing things “the Detroit
way.” “‘The Detroit way’ is our own sense of community,” he stated in a 1991 interview
with The Detroit News. “It’s based on a sharing — past, present and future.”
“Bill’s from Detroit. He was raised with a sort of working-class ethic and
morals, giving back,” reflects his friend and colleague, poet M.L. Liebler, “Bill Harris
is about service to the community.”
Harris has instilled an appreciation for the literary arts and mastery of
creative writing in students attending Wayne State University, The College for
Creative Studies and Detroit’s public schools for almost 25 years. “Bill had tremendous
seriousness and grace in working with the students,” says InsideOut Founding
Director Terry Blackhawk of Harris’ time working with her at Mumford High School
in the Poets in Schools outreach program of the 1990s. “He created an atmosphere
that encouraged creativity to bubble up.” Harris was to become a founding member
Bill Harris with his mother, Elizabeth Gay, May 1990, Detroit. “I love to teach,” says Harris. “I love getting people to realize
possibilities beyond what they come with, to see possibilities
in terms of what they are capable of and in terms of tapping
into the larger possibilities of the world.”
Michigan Writers Series, has given poetry readings and participated in writing
workshops around the city of Detroit. He has also served as a visiting writer at
Haystack Mountain School of Crafts’ summer workshop in Deer Isle, Maine.
Ever the historian, Harris served as Curator of Living History and Chief
Curator at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit,
where he spun his many creative talents into a whirlwind of educational activity,
creating breakthrough exhibits for Black History Month he called “hourly living
history tours.” “I really liked that job,” recalls Harris “because it asked me to be
everything I was and am: writer, artist, playwright, teacher.”
Former student Thomas Park, now teaching high school English in North
Carolina, feels Harris is a guardian angel for many who come into his circle. “He’s
a really special man,” says Park. “I’ve seen him lower his wings to so many people
out in the street and in his writing, there are always these characters who are
struggling to just get by, against all odds. He makes a difference for everybody.”
M.L. Liebler agrees. “In any way Bill can help people, whether it’s students or
people in the community or other artists in different disciplines, he’s there.”
Bill Harris has been in love with jazz since
his early teens, when he was first
introduced to the sounds of Charlie Parker,
Dizzy Gillespie and other greats. His 1970
photo of a drummer mid-set at one of
Detroit’s then numerous jazz clubs
captures the energy and intensity of the
music and the mood.
Bill Harris:
The Big Sound of Life Itself
George Tysh
ill and I go way back, to before we even knew each other, back
to Detroit jazz of the late 50s, Ed Love’s “Sundown” show on
WCHB, jukeboxes in chili joints playing Jimmy Reed, Etta
James, and Art Blakey, neighborhood record marts full of the
latest R&B and bebop.
In 1958, when my dad moved our family from New Jersey to the Motor City,
Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Parker, and the Modern Jazz Quartet were major food
groups in my listening diet. But little did I know that a whole new world of sound
and ideas awaited me at the high school I would soon attend: Cass Tech. I was 16,
just beginning my junior year, and had never seen so many black, white, and
Chicano kids all in the same place. Cass was an eight-story culture factory, with
resources for just about anything you wanted to study, and elevators that zipped
between floors. The music students played concerts of Bartok and Hindemith, and
anybody lucky enough could listen when jazz sessions broke out under the stage.
Although Bill and I didn’t meet up until the early 60s at Wayne State, we were both
fish in this same nurturing pool that brought together the offspring of Armenian,
Greek, Jewish, Syrian, Polish, Mexican, et al. immigrants with those of folks from
Appalachia and the Deep South. After school, some of us would walk downtown to
mingle in the bustle of cars, buses,
Coneys, pawnshops, pool halls, office
buildings, and people, people, people
everywhere. We wandered wide-eyed
through Hudson’s high-rise department store, checking out the fine
neckties and shirts, and the fine
salesgirls too. Before the 60s were
over, we’d join the picket lines in
front of Woolworth’s on Woodward to
protest their policy of lunch-counter
discrimination (not restricted to the
Signs of the times: militant posters and graffiti speckle a building in
downtown Detroit, early 1970s.
South by any means). And in the
constant background of our souls was the music: Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, James
Brown, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins ....
When I got to Wayne State (“choosing” it was an economic no-brainer for any
working class kid), I finally got to take creative writing, something I’d been anticipating since I first pored over Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Kerouac’s “The Dharma
Bums.” Bill had graduated from Cass before me, and had spent a few semesters at
Highland Park Community College. But in 1962 we fatefully bumped into each
other in a creative writing section taught by Jay McCormick, and started comparing
Poet George Tysh
teaches film
studies at the
College for Creative
Studies in Detroit.
His latest work is
“The Imperfect”
from United
Artists Books,
New York City.
George Tysh wrote
his original essay
expressly for this
notes, so to speak, both the verbal and musical kind. It didn’t take long for us to
realize that deep inside our love of language (its sound and structure, the way it set
up fascinating possibilities and opened the gates of feeling) was a shared passion
for jazz. Bill had a regular job to pay for tuition, but he also worked at a downtown
record store, Monroe Music, so he could get paid in LPs(!) One summery Saturday
afternoon, we met on Monroe Street near the old National Theater, and Bill took me
over to the shop, where my eyes worked harder than my fingers as they flipped
through rows and bins of the most exciting vinyl I had ever seen: Prestige, Blue
Note, Riverside, Contemporary, labels that literally championed the new music, the
covers overflowing with luscious colors, photographs and typography to announce
the treasures within: Gene Ammons, Lou Donaldson, John Coltrane, Thelonious
Monk .… These were 33 rpm discs, but my head was spinning at 78!
I don’t know which was more important to us in those days, music or writing.
Bill let me read one of his first short stories, about a young black guy who robs a
party store to get money for Ray Charles concert tickets, but ends up dead in an
alley, shot down by the police. We became ardent devourers of a handful of
specialized magazines that, not coincidentally, focused on both music and writing:
Metronome, DownBeat, The Jazz Review, Evergreen Review, and Kulchur. Edited by
critics Martin Williams and Nat Hentoff, The Jazz Review featured articles written
by the musicians themselves (among them, some lovely pieces by Cannonball
Adderley), plus amazing analyses of Coltrane solos, Muddy Waters’ lyrics, and an
introduction to that rising young Turk of the tenor sax, Wayne Shorter, penned
by poet, jazz critic and playwright LeRoi Jones (soon to become Amiri Baraka,
author of “Dutchman” and “The Toilet,” and a founding father of a new, explosive,
black theater).
The autumn 1962 issue of Kulchur, a literary journal edited by poets Charles
Olson, Frank O’Hara, and Jones, for example, included “Five Statements for Poetry”
by Louis Zukofsky, art work by Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, and Franz Kline,
a childhood photograph of Lester Young and his mother, a “Theatre Chronicle” by
Joseph LeSueur (discussing Samuel Beckett’s play “Happy Days”), and jazz reviews
by Jones and A.B. Spellman. The doors to a whole universe of artistic engagement
were flung open, and we couldn’t wait to enter them into the future.
By 1963, the die was cast, and young artists, musicians, and writers began to
interlock orbits in the Cass Corridor. When poets Robin Eichele, John Sinclair and
myself, photographer Magdalena Arndt (soon to become Leni Sinclair), and jazz
trumpeter Charles Moore got together in 1964 to spearhead a new project called the
Detroit Artists’ Workshop, Bill was one of the key poets to read from his work at the
Sunday jazz concerts on Forest, between Trumbull and the Lodge Freeway. Even in
those early days, his writing had an unmistakable authority, a world-wise gravitas,
but one that never undercut his “sound.”
After I left for Paris in 1965, and Bill got an invitation from the Army that he
couldn’t avoid in 1966, we lost touch until the mid-70s. Yet picking up where we left
off was one of the easiest things I’ve ever done. By that time, Bill had married
Carole, his college sweetheart (and another Cass alum), and I had come home with
Chris, my Parisian bride. Carole had already begun to transform the Southern
quilting tradition into vibrant modern art, and Chris was starting to write both
poetry and plays, so the connections were there more than ever, but quadrupled,
and our collective attachment to Detroit remained unshakable. Then in the 80s
Bill’s vital immersion in the independent theater world of Manhattan finally
brought him the critical recognition he deserved, and he hasn’t stopped expanding
the parameters of his projects ever since: from such plays as “Coda,” his heartfelt
evocation of the Detroit bebop scene (its final soliloquy is a masterful poetic
sermon), to “Yardbird Suite,” a “biopoem” on Charles “Yardbird” Parker, to his latest
book of investigative poetry, the amazing “Birth of a Notion.”
In February 1993, as I was walking out of Tower Records in downtown
Manhattan with a fistful of jazz CDs, I heard a voice call my name. I turned and
there was Bill, asking me what I was doing that afternoon — his latest play, “Robert
Johnson: Trick the Devil,” was opening at the New Federal Theatre and he wanted
me to see it. Fate and happenstance, or a Motor City mojo, had brought us together
once again.
A few hours later I found myself sitting in a dark auditorium marveling at the
magic of Bill’s writing for the stage, his command of dialogue and poetic inflection —
the plot concerns the last three days in the life of the mythical bluesman — intertwined
with classic Johnson tunes that functioned like a Greek chorus commenting on the
action. It was an apotheosis. Everything that I knew about Bill’s work came together
in that testament to his talent, compassion and engagement with the lives of “the
people,” as Duke Ellington famously once said. It was the big sound of life itself.
Bill Harris at home,
in Detroit, 1969.
William A. Harris
Cass Technical High School
Highland Park Community
Wayne State University:
Bachelor of Arts
Master of Arts
Professional Activities
Martin Luther King/
Rosa Parks Visiting Scholar
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
1974-1979; 1986-1990
College for Creative Studies
Detroit, Michigan
Associate Professor
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
Board Member/
Master Panelist
Detroit Council of the Arts/
Department of Cultural
Detroit, Michigan
Artistic Director
New Voices Play
Reading Series
Detroit, Michigan
Guest Writer in Residence
Detroit Public Schools
Detroit, Michigan
Tompkins Drama Award
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
January 25, 1941
Anniston, Alabama
Master of Fine Arts Panelist
Theatre Department
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
1998; 2005
Board Member
Detroit, Michigan
Manuscript Reader
Wayne State University Press
Detroit, Michigan
Board Member
New Federal Theatre
New York, New York
Arts and Educations Grant
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
Creative Writers in
School Review
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
1997; 2000; 2001
Board of Directors
Detroit, Michigan
Appointments Committee
Theatre Department
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
Board Member/Reader
Wayne State University Press
Minority Studies
Detroit, Michigan
Curator of Living History
Charles H. Wright
Museum of African
American History
Detroit, Michigan
Detroit Institute of Arts/
Detroit Public Schools
Writing Competition
Detroit, Michigan
1991; 1997
National Gold Key Literary
The Scholastic Art &
Writing Awards
New York, New York
Chief Curator
Charles H. Wright
Museum of African
American History
Detroit, Michigan
Travel Grants Awards
Arts Midwest
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Student Writing About Art
10th Anniversary Anthology
Detroit, Michigan
Summer Fiction Contest
Metro Times
Detroit, Michigan
1998; 2000
Collections Committee
Charles H. Wright
Museum of African
American History
Detroit, Michigan
Judith Siegel Pearson Awards
Detroit, Michigan
Senior Grants Panelist
Arts Council/
City of Detroit
Detroit, Michigan
Selecting Panelist
Kresge Eminent Artist
Award/Kresge Artist
Kresge Arts In Detroit
Detroit, Michigan
Art and Perseverence:
Selected Papers for the Bill
Harris Archival Collection,
African American Special
Collection Room,
David Adamany
Undergraduate Library,
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
Selected Honors/Awards
Tompkins Writing Award:
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
Writing Award: Novel
Mary Roberts Rinehart
George Mason University
Fairfax, Virginia
Merit Award: Drama
Greater Detroit Motion
Picture Council
Detroit, Michigan
Arts Achievement Award
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
Distinguished Pioneering of
the Arts Award
United Black Artist USA
Detroit, Michigan
Best Production/Black
Theatre Awards
“Robert Johnson: Trick
The Devil”
AUDELCO: Audience
Development Committee
New York, New York
Honorary Member
Golden Key
National Honor Society
Reston, Virginia
Naomi Long Madgett
Poetry Award
For “Yardbird Suite:
Side One”
Detroit, Michigan
University Teaching Award
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
Silver Medal for Drama
for “Robert Johnson:
Trick the Devil”
International Radio
Programming Festival
New York, New York
Career Development
Chair Award
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
Charles H. Gershenson
Distinguished Faculty
Fellow Award
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
Humanities Center Faculty
Fellowship Award
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
Spirit of Detroit Award
Detroit Common Council
Detroit, Michigan
Dr. Charles H. Wright
Award for Excellence in
Fine Arts
Presented by The Friends
Charles H. Wright
Museum of African
American History
Detroit, Michigan
Kresge Eminent Artist
The Kresge Foundation
Troy, Michigan
Faculty Recognition Award
For “Birth of A Notion”
Wayne State University
Board of Governors
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
The Dog on the Victrola
City Arts Quarterly
Volume 3, Number: Fall
Detroit, Michigan, 1988
Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone
New Plays for the Black Theatre
Edited by Woodie King, Jr.
Third World Press
Chicago, Illinois, 1989
Up and Gone Again
Roots & Blossoms: African American
Plays for Today
Bedford Publishing
Detroit, Michigan, 1991
Coda (2 excerpts)
Voices of Color: 50 Scenes and Monologues
by African American Playwrights
Edited by Woodie King, Jr.
Applause Theatre Books
New York, New York, 1993
He Who Endures
African American Literature: A Brief
Introduction and Anthology
Edited by Al Young
The HarperCollins Literary Mosaic Series
HarperCollins College Publishers
New York, New York, 1996
Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil
The National Black Drama Anthology:
Eleven Plays from America’s Leading
African American Theaters
Edited by Woodie King, Jr.
Applause Theatre Books
New York, New York, 1996
Audio Books and CDs
One of His Own
Featured reading from a
December 13, 1964 recording
Produced by Book Beat
Oak Park, Michigan, 2005
Stories About the Old Days
Samuel French
New York, New York, 1990
The Ringmaster’s Array
Past Tents Press
Ferndale, Michigan 1997
Yardbird Suite: Side One
Michigan State University Press
East Lansing, Michigan 1997
Riffs and Coda
Broadside Press
Detroit, Michigan, 1998
Birth of a Notion or The Half Ain’t Never
Been Told: A Narrative Account with
Entertaining Passages of the State of
Minstrelsy and of America, the True Relation
Thereof (from the Ha Ha Dark Side)
(Poetry and prose)
Wayne State University Press
Detroit, Michigan, 2010
Booker T & Them: A Blues
Publication Date: Spring 2012
Wayne State University Press
Detroit, Michigan
Your Cheating Heart, DeWitt Meets
Picasso, and The Little Red Schoolhouse,
chapters excerpted from “Just Like in the
Solid Ground: A New World Journal
Spring, 1986, Volume Number 3,
Number 1, pp. 34-38.
Detroit, Michigan
In Enemy Territory, Books Everywhere,
and In Perilous Flight,
chapters excerpted from “Just Like in the Movies.”
Solid Ground: A New World Journal
Spring, 1987, pp. 36-39.
Detroit, Michigan
That Ought To Hold You,
chapter excerpted from “Just Like in the Movies.”
Wayne Literary Review
Spring/Summer 1992, pp. 37-40.
Detroit, Michigan
Chapter excerpt from “Just Like in the Movies”
TRAIT, a Detroit Journal of Regional
Art and Culture, March 1999
Detroit, Michigan The Custodian of the Dreambook,
chapter excerpted from “Just Like in the Movies.”
Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking
Out the Jams
Edited and introduced by M.L. Liebler
Coffee House Press
Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2010
Foreword contributor
Talking Shops: Detroit Commercial Folk Art
Photographs by David Clements
Wayne State University Press
Detroit, Michigan, 2005
Within the Circle of Ourselves and Images/
A pair of poems in the Ontario Review
Fall/Winter 1977-78, pp. 72-75.
Princeton, New Jersey
Silent Tongues
48222 A Detroit Book of Poetry
Detroit River Press, 1979, pp. 97-102.
Detroit, Michigan
According to the Pattern
Kick Out the Jams, Detroit’s
Cass Corridor 1963-1977
Detroit Institute of Arts, 1980, p. 138.
Detroit, Michigan
Griot De La Grand
Black Scholar Journal of Black Studies
and Research
Volume 12, Number 4, July/August, 1981, p. 55.
The Black World Foundation
Sausalito, California
Elegy; Billie’s Blues
Nostalgia for the Present, An Anthology of
Writings from Detroit
Post Aesthetic Press, 1985, p. 44.
Detroit, Michigan
(Third Movement) Two Moons
of Luvernia Callaloo
A Journal of African American and
African Arts and Letters
No. 35, Volume 11, Spring, 1988, pp. 275-276.
Johns Hopkins University Press
Baltimore, Maryland
Romare Bearden – Suite For Reclining Nudes
Cranbrook Review
Spring, 1992, pp. 87-90,
Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
Charles and Rebecca. Their Bedroom.
Evening; Nighthawks; Back Home Blues;
and Hot House 1515 Oliver Street K.C., MO
A trio of poems in the The World
Number 48, 1993, pp. 44-50.
Right Down There On 12th Street
Number 3, 1994, pp. 9-10.
Birth of a Notion
Volume 2, Doorjamb Press
Detroit, Michigan, 1998
Allie McGhee Runs the New View Down and show catalog in
collaboration with Allie McGhee and
Faruk Z. Bey
G.R. N’Namdi Gallery
Detroit, Michigan, 2002
Tiger In the City
Exhibition collaboration with visual artist
Patricia Wynne
Mahu Gallery
New York, New York, 2002
WAR: An altered found poem.
Doorjamb Press
Detroit, Michigan, 2004
Rhythms: Micro to Macro
Allie McGhee Exhibit Catalog
G.R. N’Namdi Gallery
Detroit, Michigan, 2005
Charles McGee & Al Hinton Exhibit Catalog
Scarab Club
Detroit, Michigan, 2005
Cabinet of Curiosity
Arnold Klein Gallery
Royal Oak, Michigan
February, 2008
Paths of the Traveled Artist
Charles McGee 2008 Eminent Artist Monograph
The Kresge Foundation
Troy, Michigan, 2010
Boo–A Musical Fantasy
1991 December 5January 5,1992
Attic Theatre
Detroit, Michigan
2001 October 10-28
The Black Rep/St. Louis
Black Repertory Company
St. Louis, Missouri
Choreopoem—a Tribute
to Langston Hughes
One performance
Produced by Your Heritage
Bonstelle Theatre
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
1990 April 25-May 20
Attic Theatre
Detroit, Michigan
Excerpt for
“Spoken Art: The Art of
Produced by Sleeping Giant
BRAVO! Canadian Cable
Toronto, Ontario
Cool Blues
Staged reading
National Black Theatre
Winston-Salem, North
Staged reading
New Federal Theatre
Henry Street Settlement
Abrons Arts Center
New York, New York
Staged reading
New Federal Theatre
Henry Street Settlement
Abrons Arts Center
New York, New York
2011 March 10-April 3
New Federal Theatre
Henry Street Settlement
Abrons Arts Center
New York, New York
Every Goodbye Ain’t
New Federal Theatre
Henry Street Settlement
Abrons Arts Center
New York, New York
1983 October 14-16
CCNY Aronow Theatre
New York, New York
1984 May 1-May 20
National Black Touring
Colonnades Theatre
New York, New York
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, Illinois
Billie Holiday Theatre
Brooklyn, New York
Black Folks Theatre
Boston, Massachusetts
Earl D.A. Smith Theatre
University of Detroit
Detroit, Michigan
Staged reading
Carrie Productions
Burbank, California
University of Redlands
Redlands, California
2000 July
New Federal Theatre
Henry Street Settlement
Abrons Arts Center
New York, New York
2000 July 26-30
Great Black One Acts
New York, New York
2003 April 15-19
Bellamy Theatre
Clemson University
Clemson, South Carolina
2005 February 9-March 6
The Black Rep/St. Louis
Black Repertory Company
St. Louis, Missouri
2010 April 30-May 1
Kennedy King College
Chicago, Illinois
Follow The Truth
2000 November 6
The Black Rep/St. Louis
Black Repertory Company/
Touring Company
St. Louis, Missouri
He Who Endures
Detroit Institute of Arts
Detroit, Michigan
1992 May 28-30
University of Michigan-Flint
Flint, Michigan
2007 September 21October 14
Part of “Black Trilogy 2007”
Stella Adler Theatre
Hollywood, California
“His Soul Goes Marching
On: John Brown,
Frederick Douglass,
Detroit and the Path
to Freedom: A
Commemoration of the
150th Anniversary of the Detroit Meeting of
John Brown and Frederick
2009 March 12
Charles H. Wright Museum
of African American History
Detroit, Michigan
Magic Bird – A Children’s
Puppet Play (Adaptation)
Charles H. Wright Museum
of African American History
Detroit, Michigan
Chapter in the Lives of
Dred and Harriet Scott
Staged in the Missouri
Historical Society, Missouri
Legislative Black Caucus,
schools, public libraries,
universities and the court
house where the actual trial
took place.
Dred Scott Sesquicentennial
St. Louis, Missouri
No Use Crying
2004 August 27September 179
Unity Players Ensemble
Inglewood, California
Malcolm X College
Chicago, Illinois
1969 September 19
The Louis Theatre
Chicago, Illinois
1971 March 30
X-Bag: Experiential Black
Artists Guild
Parkway Community
House Theatre
Chicago, Illinois
1972 September 22October 22
Concept East Theatre
Detroit, Michigan
1995 March 31
The Black Rep/St. Louis
Black Repertory Company
St. Louis, Missouri
1995 November 1-12;
November 22-December 10
Seven Stages Theatre
Atlanta, Georgia
1996 March
Attic Theatre
Detroit, Michigan
Independent Professional
Performing Artists
Chicago, Illinois
Staged reading
The Robey Theatre Company
Burbank, California
1973 March 9-April 1
Concept East Theatre
Detroit, Michigan
2000 June 1-July 2
Houston Ensemble Theatre
Houston, Texas
1973 September 27October 13
Mwongi Arts Players
McGregor Library
Highland Park, Michigan
2000 September 21November 5
eta Creative Arts Theatre
Chicago, Illinois
Queen of Sheba
Staged reading
The Black Rep/St. Louis
Black Repertory Company
St. Louis, Missouri
1997 June
Staged reading
Juneteenth Festival of
New Works
University of Louisville
Louisville, Kentucky
1998 April 22-May 17
The Black Rep/St. Louis
Black Repertory Company
St. Louis, Missouri
2000 November 24December 17
Unity Players Ensemble
Inglewood, California
2001 March 23-April 23
Penumbra Theatre
St. Paul, Minnesota
Robert Johnson: Trick
the Devil
Staged Reading
National Black Theatre
Winston-Salem, North
National Black Theatre
Winston-Salem, North
1993 February 18-March 20
New Federal Theatre
Henry Street Settlement
Abrons Arts Center
New York, New York
1993 June 17-20;
June 24-27; July 1-4
New Federal Theatre
Schomburg Center for
Research in
Black Culture
New Public Library
New York, New York
Radio play version
(27 minutes)
Public Radio
Exit 3 Productions
New York, New York
Staged reading
The Met Theatre
Carrie Productions
Burbank, California
1996 February
Jomandi Theatre
Atlanta, Georgia
1997 January 23-February 9
Human Race Theatre
Dayton, Ohio
1997 March
Phoenix Theatre
Indianapolis, Indiana
1999 November
Ujima Theatre
Buffalo, New York
2000 November 9-26
Memphis Black
Repertory Theatre
Memphis, Tennessee
2001 February 1-February 25
African American Ensemble
Miami, Florida
2001 June 22-July 1
Hilberry Theatre
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
2001 September 7October 28
The Ensemble Theatre
Houston, Texas
2003 February 26-28
Cabaret Theatre
University of La Verne
La Verne, California
Charles H. Wright Museum
of African American History
Detroit, Michigan
2003 April 23-May 18
The Black Rep/St. Louis
Black Repertory Company
St. Louis, Missouri
Detroit Public Schools
Detroit, Michigan
2003 October 26
The Black Rep/St. Louis
Black Repertory Company
St. Louis, Missouri
2004 February 7-21
Lonny Chapman Group
Repertory Theatre
North Hollywood, California
2004 February 18-March 7
Freedom Theatre
John E. Allen, Jr. Theatre
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
2005 June 30-August 14
eta Creative Arts Theatre
Chicago, Illinois
2008 April 17-27
Pro Arts Collective/
Austin Community College
Rollins Theatre
Long Center for the
Performing Arts
Austin, Texas
2008 August 29-31;
September 7
Upstage Theatre Company
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
2010 June 6
Staged reading
“Great Black Plays and
Playwrights” series
National Black Theatre
New York, New York
Slave Narrative
Education and Outreach
Attic Theatre
Detroit, Michigan
Fort Wayne Historical
Detroit, Michigan
Northland Center
Southfield, Michigan
Production sponsored by
The Michigan Psychoanalytic
Charles H. Wright Museum
of African American History
Detroit, Michigan
The Black Rep/St. Louis
Black Repertory Company /
Touring Company
St. Louis, Missouri
Stories About the Old
1986 May 14-June 1
New Federal Theatre
Henry Street Settlement
Abrons Arts Center
New York, New York
Staged Reading
College of Life Long
Learning Conference
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
Oregon Theatre Company
Portland, Oregon
Howard University
Washington, DC
Freedom Theatre
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Ohio Northern University
Ada, Ohio
Bowery Theatre
San Diego, California
Southern University
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
The Black Rep/St. Louis
Black Repertory Company
St. Louis, Missouri
The Ensemble Theatre
Houston, Texas
Karamu House
Cleveland, Ohio
Act One (excerpt)
North West Activities Center
Holly Springs, Mississippi
North Carolina A&T
State University
Greensboro, North Carolina
2003 January 9-February 2
North Coast
Repertory Theatre
Solano Beach, California
2005 February 9-March 6
The Black Rep/St. Louis
Black Repertory Company
St. Louis, Missouri
2005 April 1-3; 8-10; 15-17
Department of Theatre
Alumni Chapter
North Carolina Central
Communications Building
Durham, North Carolina
2005 May 5
Bushfire Theatre
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
2008 February 27-March 16
African American
Performing Arts
Community Theatre
Miami, Florida
2009 November 20-22
New African Grove Theatre
Atlanta, Georgia
The Society of Men
Single Performance
Attic Theatre
Detroit, Michigan
Charles H. Wright Museum
of African American History
Detroit, Michigan
Thicker Than Water
Staged reading
National Black Theatre
North Carolina
New Federal Theatre
Henry Street Settlement
Abrons Arts Center
New York, New York
Up And Gone Again
Staged Reading
Carrie Productions
Burbank, California
2000 May 6
New Play Series
Staged Reading
The Black Rep/St. Louis
Black Repertory Company
Dillard University
Atlanta, Georgia
Warn The Wicked
Indiana University
Bloomington, Indiana
Parkway Community Theatre
Chicago, Illinois
Children’s Repertory Theatre
The Black Rep/St. Louis
Black Repertory Company
St. Louis, Missouri
What Goes Around
Staged reading
Frank Silvera Drama
New York, New York
Staged reading
Negro Ensemble Company
New York, New York
Staged reading
Harmonie Park Playhouse
Detroit, Michigan
2000 February 25-April 2
Unity Players Ensemble
Inglewood, California
2003 July 21-July 27
One Act Play Festival
Obsidian Theatre
New York, New York
2005 February 14-March 13
Unity Players Ensemble
Los Angeles, California
A Note from Richard L. Rogers
The Kresge Eminent Artist Award
The College for Creative Studies is honored to partner with The Kresge Foundation in
administering the Kresge Eminent Artist Award. The national spotlight is currently shining
Artist Award, which includes a $50,000 prize, acknowledges artistic innovation and rewards integrity, depth of
vision, and singularity of purpose as judged by the Kresge Eminent Artist Panel. The College for Creative
Studies administers the Kresge Eminent Artist Award on behalf of the Kresge Foundation.
Beginning in 2008, The Kresge Foundation each year honors an exceptional artist for lifelong
professional achievements and contributions to the cultural community. The Kresge Eminent
on Detroit’s artistic community as evidenced by the current surge in Detroit-centered media stories.
We are grateful to The Kresge Foundation, which is helping to thrust our best and brightest talent
onto the national stage. At CCS we recognize that one key to revitalizing this region is through the
engagement of the creative community. Creativity drives innovation which leads to economic
competitiveness and growth. That’s why the Kresge Arts in Detroit initiative is so important and why
we are thrilled to be a part of it. CCS congratulates Bill Harris on being named the 2011 Kresge
Eminent Artist. Bill’s exceptional career and ongoing commitment to our community deserve special
recognition. He is an outstanding example of the richness of Detroit’s talent and the importance of
that talent to Detroit’s vitality.
Richard L. Rogers
College for Creative Studies
Kresge Arts in Detroit 2010-2011 Advisory Council
Kresge Arts in Detroit is guided by an advisory council, a volunteer group of leaders in the Metropolitan
Detroit cultural community who select review panels, nominate candidates for the Kresge Eminent Artist
Award and provide external oversight to Kresge Arts in Detroit.
Department Chair
Fine, Performing and
Communications Arts
Wayne State University
Founding Director
InsideOut Literary Arts Project
Executive Director
Anton Art Center
Program Director
The Kresge Foundation
Director and Chief Curator
Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit
General Director
Michigan Opera Theatre
Mount Clemens Arts
Consortium, Inc.
ArtServe Michigan
Arts Consultant
Executive Director
Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings,
Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival,
Eisenhower Dance Ensemble
Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Kresge Arts in Detroit
College for Creative Studies
Arts League of Michigan
G.R. N’Namdi Gallery
Shortcut Books
Community Arts Advocate
The Eminent Artist Award together with the Kresge Artists Fellowships and Kresge Arts Support constitute
Kresge Arts in Detroit, a coordinated effort to support Metropolitan Detroit’s tri-county arts and cultural
community — Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.
Kresge Eminent Artist Award Winners
Charles McGee
2008 Kresge Eminent Artist
Charles McGee’s
distinguished career
spans six decades and
encompasses the kind of
doing that astounds in
its quality and volume.
McGee’s work has been celebrated in hundreds of
exhibitions from Detroit to New York to Bangkok;
he has been a teacher and mentor to thousands
of young artists; he has founded galleries and arts
organizations, creating opportunities for others
to share their work and ideas; his work has been
commissioned and collected by institutions and
individuals around the world; he has advised the
State of Michigan, the City of Detroit and our arts
institutions on countless cultural initiatives; and he
has done it all with humility, reverence and a sense
of wonder at the power and triumph of art.
Marcus Belgrave
2009 Kresge Eminent Artist
An internationally recognized
trumpeter who long ago
chose Detroit as his home,
Marcus Belgrave is an icon to
musicians and lovers of jazz.
After more than five decades,
his tireless work, amazing technical abilities, and
the joy and spontaneity with which he creates
distinguishes him worldwide as an admired and
respected jazz master. By spreading the language of
jazz to generations of students, he has remained a
beloved mentor to young musicians, many of whom
have gone on to become great artists themselves.
Belgrave’s energy, dedication and virtuosity
epitomize the distinguishing qualities of a Kresge
Eminent Artist.
About The Kresge Foundation
The Kresge Foundation is a $3.1 billion private, national foundation that seeks to influence the quality
of life for future generations by creating access and opportunity in underserved communities, improving the
health of low-income people, supporting artistic expression, increasing college achievement, assisting in the
revitalization of Detroit, and advancing methods for addressing global climate change. The foundation works
in seven program areas: arts and culture, community development, Detroit, education, the environment, health,
and human services. For more information, visit
The Kresge Foundation Board of Trustees
Elaine D. Rosen, Chair
James L. Bildner
Lee C. Bollinger
Phillip L. Clay, Ph.D.
Jane L. Delgado, Ph.D.
Susan K. Drewes
Steven K. Hamp
Paul C. Hillegonds
Irene Y. Hirano
David W. Horvitz
Rip Rapson, President and CEO
Nancy M. Schlichting
With Very Special Thanks to: Bill and Carole Harris for their enthusiasm and generosity throughout this
project. As the author and/or photographer, Bill Harris has graciously granted permission to The Kresge Foundation
to print, either as excerpts or in their entirety, his plays, poems, essays, works of fiction, nonfiction and photography
for appearance in this publication.
We would also like to thank George Tysh for his evocative essay on Bill Harris and shared times in the Detroit of
the 50s and 60s; to Gloria House for her considered portrait of her fellow writer and to Thomas Park for his original
poem of tribute.
With additional thanks to Sheldon Annis; Marcus Belgrave; Terry Blackhawk; Castillo Theatre, a program of the All
Stars Project, Haystack Mountain School of Crafts; W. Kim Heron; Ron Himes; Woodie King, Jr.; Cynthia Krolikowski,
Librarian III, and Nardina Mein, Ph.D., Wayne State University Library Systems; Charles L. Latimer; M.L. Liebler;
Naomi Long Madgett; Charles McGee; Harriet Sturkey; Dennis Teicher; and Hilda Vest for their kind contributions.
President and CEO
The Kresge Foundation
Communications Director
The Kresge Foundation
Associate Director of Communications
The Kresge Foundation
Copy and Production Editor
The Kresge Foundation
Creative Director; Editor
Art Director; Graphic Designer
Bill Harris
Gloria House
Charles L. Latimer
Sue Levytsky
Thomas Park
George Tysh
Additional Photography
A number of the photos used throughout this monograph
come from the personal collection of Bill and Carole
Harris. Every effort has been made to locate the holders
of copyrighted material. The following have graciously
given their permission to print and/or reprint the
following material.
Copy Editor
Sally Sztrecska
EGT Printing Solutions, LLC
Madison Heights, Michigan
Carol Dronsfield
Photos appearing on inside cover,
pgs. 2, 6, 39, 40, 41, 54, 55, 57, 75,
inside back cover and back cover.
Julie Pincus
Photos appearing on pgs. 16, 42, 55,
56, 57 and 80.
About Paul Davis: A graduate
of the School of Visual Arts and
alumni of the groundbreaking
Push Pin Studios, Paul Davis is
one of America’s most influential
illustrators. In 1987, the Drama
Desk created a special award to
recognize Davis’ iconic posters
for Joseph Papp’s Public Theater,
and he is in the Hall of Fame of both the Art Directors Club
and The Society of Illustrators. Classic Davis posters include
those for “Hamlet,” “The Threepenny Opera” and “For Colored
Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.”
The cover of “Bill Harris 2011 Kresge Eminent Artist” began
as do all of Davis’ realistic portraits — with a photograph. Harris
was shot by Davis in Manhattan during the February 2011
rehearsals of “Cool Blues.”
© The Kresge Foundation
All Rights Reserved
ISBN: 978-0-9839654-0-4
Cover Art
Painting by Paul Davis
Michelle Andonian for photo appearing on pg. 79; Lia
Chang for photo appearing on pg. 40; courtesy of Bill
and Carole Harris for photos appearing on pgs. 4, 14, 15,
36, 40, 58, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 71, 73, 77 and 80; Bill
Harris for photos appearing on pgs. 30, 49, 50, 51, 53, 66,
67, 71, 73, 77; Justin Maconochie for photo appearing on
pg. 79; Leni Sinclair for photo appearing on pg. 8; the
estate of Curtis Woodson for photo appearing on pg. 69;
Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University for
photo appearing on pg. 4.
About Carole Harris: The
rhythmically constructed,
non-traditional tapestries of
artist Carole Harris are as
melodic and improvisational as
the work of her husband, writer
Bill Harris. Her award-winning
works are composed of hundreds
of richly colored fabrics that
are cut, overlaid, applied, pieced and quilted to stunning effect.
Her work is in major collections, including the White House,
Washington, DC; Michigan State University Museum of Folk
Art, East Lansing, Mich.; Harris Bank and Trust, and John H.
Groger Cook County Hospital, Chicago; Detroit Receiving
Hospital, Detroit. Ms. Harris has kindly allowed for use of her
work throughout “Bill Harris 2011 Kresge Eminent Artist.”
The paper manufacturer and the printer
are chain-of-custody certified by the
Forest Stewardship Council.
The Kresge Foundation
3215 W. Big Beaver Road
Troy, Michigan 48084
248.643.9630 telephone